March 13, 2014

Beating Northwestern at its Own Game?

by Laurel Pfahler | | Twitter

Notre Dame and Ohio State both ended long streaks against Northwestern with narrow wins this season. Has adopting the Wildcats' style paved their way to success against the originators? (TD Paulius)

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

For much of the last decade, college women's lacrosse teams have tried to replicate, counter or break what Northwestern did during a run of seven NCAA Division I championships in nine years. North Carolina got over the Northwestern hump last year, defeating the Wildcats in the NCAA semifinals en route to its first championship. This season, Notre Dame and Ohio State have figured out how to beat the Wildcats at their own game.

But much of Northwestern's success over the years has been the result of an evolving system. The college women's lacrosse world anxiously awaits how the Wildcats will respond this time.

"What's unique about Northwestern is they are always changing, so once you think you've got it, it's changed already," said Ohio State coach Alexis Venechanos, who was on Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte Hiller's staff from 2004 to 2006. "That program is ever changing. They graduate a great class every year, and they keep the core concepts of their philosophies. But they always put another layer on. They always tweak something to their advantage. They take risks and try new things, and sometimes that can be scary, but Kelly is not afraid to do that."

Ohio State defeated Northwestern for the first time since 1993 last Sunday, picking up an 11-10 overtime win. Four days earlier, Notre Dame ended a 13-game losing streak against the Wildcats with a 9-8 victory.

The Buckeyes, who lost their previous two games against Northwestern by one goal, finally beat their American Lacrosse Conference rival with the help of a stifling zone defense. Cian Dabrowski scored the winning goal with 5:06 left in overtime after the Buckeyes gave up a two-goal lead midway through the second half to extend the game.

"We wanted them to beat all of us rather than these 1-v-1s," said Venechanos, in her fourth year at Ohio State. "It was a combination of that we shot pretty well, we kept possession pretty even and our defense stepped up. Our goalie had some good timely saves, and we won by one goal in overtime, so it was pretty evenly matched. But we just had a couple more opportunities that were a little more successful for us."

What worked for Ohio State might not work for other teams, though. Notre Dame had a different approach. After rebounding Tuesday to beat Michigan 20-6, Northwestern is in the midst of a 12-day break before visiting Syracuse on March 23. No doubt, the Orange will have its own agenda.

"It's just doing the things we've been emphasizing throughout the fall and in the preseason and doing the better and really locking into the small details," Amonte Hiller said. "When you do, you get better and your confidence grows and everything falls into place, so that's really important and that's what we're really focusing in on."

Amonte Hiller said any top team is under a microscope for imitation, and it seems more teams are trying to beat the Wildcats at their own game. Others play to their own strengths to try to break Northwestern, but Amonte Hiller said the key to her success since starting up the varsity program in 2002 has been staying flexible and teaching her players to adjust and react in different situations.

"We talk about having the lacrosse IQ to understand what's coming at you and being able to adjust and not just having a cookie-cutter game plan," Amonte Hiller said. "It comes with experience, and we're going to keep working on that. This team has incredible potential, but it just hasn't fully come together yet."

Though Amonte Hiller has been known for "thinking outside the box," as Venechanos said, Northwestern's teams over the years have been marked by a high-pressure defense and dominant midfield lines that never seem to fade. While that style hasn't always worked against Northwestern, it's no surprise to see some Amonte Hiller disciples, like UMass coach Angela McMahon, finding success implementing some of those same philosophies when facing other opponents.

McMahon's Minutewomen are currently ranked No. 7 and unbeaten with a 6-0 record going into Friday's game against first-year Colorado (4-2) – the third game UMass will play against a team coached by a former Northwestern player (Ann Elliott).

"There are a lot more teams now pressuring and playing the more in-your-face style defense and a balanced attack where anyone can score at any time," said McMahon, who played for Northwestern from 2002 to 2004, the seasons just before the first NCAA championship in 2005. "You see more of those midfield lines systems being run. That's a key aspect that was a big focus when I was at Northwestern, having middies that can go all-out in every rep they are out there, because they are going to get a one-minute break. Other teams are doing that and also figuring out how to break it."

McMahon said Northwestern has been the model for success, but it's almost impossible to replicate because of Amonte Hiller's willingness to try new things.

"With a target on their back, they were still able to find ways to win and be successful, and it wasn't always the same way every time," McMahon said. "I don't expect anything different this year."

The only difference for Northwestern this year is the losses are coming earlier in the season, so the adjusting needs to happen quicker. The midseason break in the Wildcats' schedule could not have come at a better time. After traveling March 23 to Syracuse, Northwestern will play March 25 at UMass.

"We've had years with losses," Amonte Hiller said. "This year it's a little more toward the beginning of the season, which from our perspective is kind of helpful, so we can coach and our players are listening and are really wanting to respond and do the best they can to put themselves in a great position. It's ignited us."

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