April 17, 2009

Bowen Injury Tests Northwestern's Depth, Resolve

by Daniel Malloy | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Hannah Nielsen was just a couple feet behind Hilary Bowen when Northwestern's star attacker collapsed to the ground after making a cut a couple minutes into the Wildcats' April 4 game against California.

Nielsen watched helplessly as her teammate, classmate and housemate -- not to mention the NCAA's active career scoring leader -- clutched her left knee in what might have been the final moments of a brilliant college career.

"When you see that happen to one of your best players, it's not a good feeling," Nielsen said.

The feeling got worse when the injury was revealed to be a torn ACL. Bowen, a senior, is opting for intense rehabilitation in lieu of immediate surgery to attempt a long-shot return for the postseason.

"It's up to her and how she feels," said head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller. "I think that she's just focusing in on today and not worrying about tomorrow right now."

For now, Bowen's absence in the lineup is testing the No. 1 Wildcats in a way their opponents -- all but two of their 13 wins are by more than 10 goals, and no game has been closer than five goals -- have failed to do this year.

"No matter what the season is, it's always something, at least one thing you have to overcome that's extremely challenging," Amonte Hiller said. "It's really how you approach it is that makes your team. And we're hoping that we can continue to respond well to missing Hilary."

The first challenge came last Sunday against Penn State, when the Nittany Lions jumped out to a 3-0 lead.

"We were a little bit disheveled there in the beginning," Amonte Hiller said. "You realize that Hilary's not there, but you don't really realize it until you're playing another team who puts pressure on you."

Northwestern's response to the pressure: 10 consecutive goals, scored by six different Wildcats, to take a commanding lead and show that even without Bowen, they remain remarkably deep and the consensus favorite to win a fifth straight national title.

The Wildcats face their first road games without Bowen this weekend, Friday at Johns Hopkins and Sunday at No. 10 Virginia.

But Bowen will still be on the sidelines, where she has become one of the more boisterous Wildcats.

"She's one of the loudest on the team during warm-ups," Nielsen said. "She's out there giving high fives, giving people advice. She's a leader of this team. She is supporting and encouraging. She's definitely a crucial element of this team still, even though she's not in her usual position on the field."

Before Bowen went down, she had scored a goal in 51 consecutive games, and her 212 goals rank third in program history. Twice she has been named NCAA championship MVP. She's by far the most decorated Wildcat to go down to injury during the run of championships, but she's not the first.

Amonte Hiller compared Bowen's injury to that of attacker Laura Glassanos, who missed the NCAA tournament with a fractured hip in 2005, and she said midfielder Danielle Spencer was not at full strength last year because of a hip injury.

"We try to respond, and this is not the first time we've faced adversity," Amonte Hiller said. "We're used to it."

Reigning Tewaaraton Trophy winner Nielsen has spent the past four years playing alongside Bowen -- to whom she referred by the nickname "Hil-bo" -- and isn't used to not having her there. She followed Bowen's lead in staying upbeat about the situation, but Nielsen said she's not comfortable yet without her usual wing-woman.

"Looking to my left and not seeing her in her spot was a weird feeling," Nielsen said. "We definitely miss her out there."

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