STONY BROOK, N.Y. – On Sunday night, Northwestern will play for a seventh NCAA championship in its past eight seasons, attempting to add another chapter to one of the best streaks in recent history.
The Wildcats couldn’t be happier.
“I couldn’t be more excited to be in another championship game,” the architect of Northwestern’s dynasty, head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller, said after Friday’s night’s semifinal victory against Maryland.
It is especially exciting if you are Shannon Smith, Northwestern’s all-time leading scorer facing the storybook prospect of holding the walnut-and-bronze after your final collegiate game inside of Stony Brook’s Kenneth P. Lavalle Stadium, less than 27 miles from her hometown of West Babylon, N.Y.
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“Being in my last year here and being (near) my hometown, it’s pretty exciting to be able to play a national championship here on Long Island in front of your friends and family,” Smith said. “But for this team in general, we’ve come so far from the first day we met as a team back in September.”
Beyond Smith and fellow senior and star goalkeeper Brianne LoManto, each player on the Wildcats’ roster has known nothing but playing for the biggest prize in their sport at season’s end. Except for 2010, Northwestern has captured every NCAA Division I women’s lacrosse title since 2004.
Even if they have stumbled somewhat along their current title chase. Although when it comes to the Wildcats, saying they stumbled is simply relative.
Each of the past two seasons, Northwestern (20-2) entered the NCAA Division I Women’s Lacrosse Championship as the second seed. This season, the Wildcats got doubled up by a 14-7 count by fast-rising power Florida in the American Lacrosse Conference championship game. Both of their setbacks came against the Gators, the bracket’s top seed who found themselves on the wrong end of the second-biggest comeback in tournament history against upstart Syracuse on Friday night.
Since then, Northwestern has been methodical in advancing through the bracket, recording identical 12-7 victories at home against Notre Dame and Duke before facing a rare, albeit, small bit of adversity. With about 27 minutes left, the Wildcats looked flat, trailing national rival Maryland by a 6-4 score before reeling off five of the final six goals to produce a 9-7 victory short on style points, but indicative of just how resolute and resourceful this program truly is on a big stage.
Especially when lacrosse has become increasingly competitive. Not only is Maryland still strong, but Syracuse will play for its firs national championship and Florida rose from varsity neophyte to No. 1 seed in three short seasons.
Syracuse — “They are a thrilling team,” Amonte Hiller said — prevents an intriguing opponent for the Northwestern machine. Not just because of the disparity in championship-game experience, but because the Orange have recorded consecutive late-game comebacks just to reach this stage, so they are playing free and easy, unburdened by expectations.
Even if this is the eighth consecutive season Northwestern will play for the walnut-and-bronze, however, the thrill of the chase to add a seventh national championship never gets old.
“For me, each year is special,” junior midfielder Taylor Thornton said. “I don’t think there’s much difference. It’s something to treasure. With this program, it’s tradition, it’s going to be really exciting on Sunday.”