Over the last decade, many great players have come through the Northwestern women’s lacrosse program, but Shannon Smith’s résumé stands out as the best of the best.
Last year, in her junior season, Smith put together one of the most superb seasons in Division I women’s lacrosse history, winning the Tewaaraton Award and Lacrosse Honda Sports Award as the nation’s top player after leading the Wildcats to their sixth national title in the last seven years. Smith tallied a school-record 86 goals, and led the nation with 5.57 points per game.
Already collecting eight goals and two assists just two games into the 2012 season, it looks like Lacrosse Magazine’s Preseason Player of the Year will be giving an encore to last year’s stellar campaign.
Smith grew up in West Babylon, N.Y., in the middle of Long Island’s lacrosse hotbed. Her love affair with lacrosse began in the sixth grade, and she started practicing with her father Bill and younger brother Andrew to hone her skills. While she fine-tuned her talents, the practices with her family also brought out Smith’s competitive nature.
“My dad is the type of person who if I played him in one-on-one basketball, he wouldn’t let me win,” Smith said. “You would have to beat him … he wouldn’t let me win just because I was his daughter. He taught us that if you want something, you have to go out and get it.”
As a little girl, her father’s methods frustrated Smith, but as one of the top players for the No. 1 Wildcats, all of that determination to improve her game has paid off.
“I would get upset when I would lose, and go home mad,” Smith said. “The next day, I would want to go back and play right away because I wanted to work hard to win. Having that and a family that pushed you and supported you and challenged you and was very competitive … that made me who I am today.”
When Smith attended Northwestern head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller’s summer camp on Long Island for the first time as a sixth-grader, she was hooked.
“When I met Kelly, I just saw how much passion and pride and excitement for the game of lacrosse and teaching every single player at camp,” Smith said. “We were always doing new and exciting cool things, and I would go home after camp and practice and show my dad. The camps were fun and challenging and competitive and always pushed you beyond your limits. I really loved that. I knew I wanted to go play for her because she was so passionate about the game.”
Smith attended Amonte Hiller’s camps every summer as she developed into one of best women’s lacrosse players New York had ever seen. She started for the West Babylon H.S. varsity squad beginning in seventh grade, racking up 729 career points and 505 career goals, which are both New York state records. When she is finished with her collegiate career, Smith plans to return to Long Island and share her talents as a high school and club coach.
“You just saw her competitiveness and her passion for the game in those camp settings,” Amonte Hiller said. “She loves to play and loves to teach it. That’s important to me. I think we attract prospects that have that similar passion and excitement who want to learn and get better.”
While Smith turned in all-star performances as a freshman and sophomore, it was her junior year that really got people talking. In the NCAA championship semifinals against North Carolina, she netted the game-winning goal with 18 seconds left to lift the Wildcats to an 11-10 victory, and then followed it up with four scores and the eventual game-winning tally in Northwestern’s 8-7 defeat of top-ranked Maryland for the national title. She was named the NCAA Tournament Most Valuable Player for her efforts.
“(Great players) have no fear to take a chance, and I think that is one thing that has defined Shannon in this program,” Amonte Hiller said. “She’s really learned how to push herself and reach beyond her own limits and mentally and physically prepare for those moments.”
“I think when I step on the field and get that ball, I have a drive and passion and willpower that is unstoppable,” Smith said. “I think that was engrained in me by my father.”
Smith is the perfect fit for a program that has dominated women’s lacrosse for the last seven years. Since 2005, the Wildcats have compiled a 149-7 record and collected six NCAA titles. And while Smith has helped the team claim two NCAA titles, she won’t be satisfied until the Wildcats put another trophy in the case.
“Last year is last year,” Smith said. “I’m excited to see how this team comes together as the year goes on. Every year, our expectation is to win the national championship, but in order to get there, you have to work on the little things day in and day out.”
“They know what the standard is,” Amonte Hiller said. “They know what the expectation is but I think sometimes they forget what goes into that and the hard work it takes every day. When you win a championship it is about that moment, but that moment is a culmination of so many moments throughout a very long year.”
The Wildcats will visit No. 9 Syracuse in the Carrier Dome on Feb. 29. Northwestern’s senior class owns an all-time 49-3 record against teams ranked in the Top 10. Smith enters the contest riding a 47-game points and goals streak dating back to the first game of 2010.