The 'Cats celebrate after a second round victory over Denver. Northwestern, a perfect 15-0 this season, will have a chance to claim their eighth national title this weekend... but what stands in their way? Photo by Joanne Haner / North by Northwestern

It’s been one heck of a year. Between the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, different Wildcat teams experiencing varying levels of success and turmoil within the athletics administration, it’s been a year of wild possibilities, questions left unanswered and dozens of uncertainties.

Yet in almost a sense of normalcy, there has been one thing that was left largely un-impacted: the dominance of Northwestern women’s lacrosse (15-0, 11-0 B1G). The No. 2 Wildcats, boasting one of the top offenses in the country, have absolutely destroyed their opponents this year en route to a perfect season, accumulating a perfect Big Ten record and sweeping through the early rounds of the NCAA Tournament to make it back to their second consecutive Final Four.

Now, however, lies the toughest test of the season. The ’Cats, who have only played one top 10 team this year, will have to play the best teams in the country in order to win the national title. They’ll kick off their Final Four play with No. 3 Syracuse (16-3, 8-2 ACC) on May 28, and if they manage to capture the victory, they’ll take on the winner of No. 1 North Carolina (20-0, 9-0 ACC) and No. 4 Boston College (16-3, 8-2 ACC) for the championship. So what can Wildcat fans expect when the ’Cats go for the gold? Who are the players to watch out for? And just how much knocking-on-wood should we do?

Grab your stick and take aim: we’re about to try to answer.

Dominance in review:

Izzy Scane – the nation's leading scorer – goes for the shot against Michigan. Scane is part of a lethal attacking core for the nation's best offense. Photo by Maren Kranking / North by Northwestern

As per usual, we’ll remind you just how good this Wildcat team is before we jump into potential opponents. When we last analyzed this team, we noted that the ’Cats had one of the top offenses in the country, and not much has changed since that evaluation. Northwestern still leads the NCAA in goals per game (20.60), points per game (29.47) and shots on goal per game (30.53).

Leading this charge is one of the top attacking cores in the NCAA, led by the nation’s leading scorer, junior attacker Izzy Scane. With 94 goals on the season, Scane is not only tied for the scoring title with Boston College’s Charlotte North, but she has shattered Northwestern’s single-season scoring record, outpacing Shannon Smith’s 86 goals in 23 games. Scane’s also dependable in any game, scoring an NCAA-best 6.27 goals per game, and has 13 goals in the NCAA tournament so far: eight in the second round, and five in the quarterfinal.

Backing up Scane on the scoresheet is senior attacker Lauren Gilbert, who sits not far behind in the NCAA standings with 4.33 goals per game, good for seventh in the nation, and 65 total goals, good for eighth. Gilbert’s not shy of the bright stage either, as she has scored nine goals in the NCAA Tournament so far, including six in the quarterfinal. Setting up the two is sophomore attacker Erin Coykendall, whose 2.93 assists per game rank seventh in the NCAA.

Coykendall's performance, in both scoring and assisting, will be critical for the 'Cats in these final games. Photo by Maren Kranking / North by Northwestern

As touched on previously, a huge reason for the Wildcats’ success has been their stingy midfield and dominant ball control, thanks in part to players like senior midfielders Jill Girardi and Brennan Dwyer. The ’Cats have worked the possession arrow continuously this season, boasting the seventh-best draw control percentage (.599) and the most draw controls per game (19.53) in the NCAA. This theme hasn’t stopped in the postseason either, as during their 19-4 and 22-10 wins over Denver and Duke, respectively, they outdrew their opponents 21-5 and 21-13.

Senior midfielder Jill Girardi sets up for the draw control against Denver. With one of the best draw control percentages in the league, the 'Cats have built a legendary offense off constant possession. Photo by Maren Kranking / North by Northwestern

Needless to say, the Wildcats’ best quality is their offense and continuous possession, which allows them to run up the score and find themselves in a fantastic position. All themes touched on before.

But what about their opponents?

Orange you glad?

The 'Cats scrum in front of their own net during a matchup against Denver. Northwestern will need to be on their A-Game to dispatch the Syracuse Orange, who host one of the best all-around attacks in the country. Photo by Maren Kranking / North by Northwestern

In their Final Four matchup, the ’Cats will be taking on the No. 3 Syracuse Orange (16-3, 8-2 ACC), their highest-ranked opponent this season. The last time the two teams met during the 2020 regular season, Syracuse ran circles around Northwestern, beating the ’Cats 16-11 after out-scoring them 9-3 in the second half.

While it is a new season, the Orange are still one of the more feared teams in the NCAA, holding wins over teams like No. 5 Notre Dame (11-7, 5-5 ACC), No. 8 Stony Brook (16-3, 8-0 AEC) and No. 7 Duke (11-8, 4-6 ACC). Their only three losses of the season were to North Carolina (two of them) and Boston College, who are playing in the other national semifinal game. The only common opponent the two teams held this year was Duke. Syracuse beat them 15-5 on March 6, while Northwestern beat them 22-10 on May 22.

What gives Syracuse such national prominence? Being a jack of all trades but master of none. The Orange hold significant positions in both scoring offense with 15.11 goals per game, and scoring defense with 9.47 goals allowed per game, good for 14th and 12th in NCAA standings, respectively. The team is also fantastic at moving the ball around, posting 8.58 assists per game.

Leading the offensive charge for the team is junior attacker Meaghan Tyrrell, who does it all for the Orange with 62 goals and 40 assists, posting 5.37 points per game, 13th in the NCAA. Tyrrell’s counterpart in the semifinal will be first-year attacker Emma Ward, who has posted 38 goals and 26 assists this year.

Unfortunately for Syracuse, however, the team will be without junior attacker Megan Carney, who had led the team in goals before tearing her ACL during a game in April.

Here’s the good news for Northwestern: the Orange do not pose a dangerous threat in the draw circle, the Wildcats’ bread-and-butter. Syracuse has controlled just 14.05 draws per game this season, paling in comparison to Northwestern’s league-leading 19.53. If the ’Cats can manage to strike early and continue to control possession off the draw, the team will be able to earn the win and move onto the championship.

Knock on wood, of course.

Title bout

Northwestern junior attacker Izzy Scane lines up a shot against Denver. If the 'Cats can handle Syracuse, they'll run into one of two dynamic teams: one that can match their offensive production, or one that could stop it dead in its tracks. Photo by Joanne Haner / North by Northwestern

If the ’Cats can manage to handle the all-around attack of Syracuse and move onto the championship, they will play the winner of North Carolina and Boston College. With a 20-0 record and a win over BC earlier in the season, however, it’s highly believed that the Tar Heels will be the team to beat in the championship game.

We’ll give Boston College some credit, however. The team has a solid offense of their own, posting 17.11 goals per game, third in the NCAA. The Eagles are led in this effort by junior attacker Charlotte North, who has actually tied Scane for the nation-lead with 94 goals of her own after scoring an NCAA Tournament record 23 goals. Of course, she’s played four more games than Scane, but details, details.

The Eagles are also quite good at draw control, actually beating Northwestern with a .617 percentage and coming in third in the nation with 18.47 per game. Unfortunately for Boston College, however, they’ll likely be undone by the number of fouls they take in the game, as they take 13.26 per game, setting up the opposition with key scoring chances in critical moments. If the ’Cats take on the Eagles in the championship, they will take great advantage of this, as they have scored 69 goals off the free position this year.

Alright, time to address the tar-heeled elephant in the room: No. 1 North Carolina, who hasn’t lost the top spot in the polls all year. If the ’Cats can eke out a win in the semifinal, they will likely take on the Tar Heels in an all-out showdown for a perfect season, national championship and everything in between.

North Carolina, however, poses a different threat to the ’Cats. They are the antithesis of everything Northwestern is successful in, instead hosting one of the top defenses in the league. The Tar Heels have allowed just 6.35 goals per game this year, the best in the NCAA, and they have one of the nation’s top goalies: senior Taylor Moreno, who hosts a .559 save percentage. By comparison, Northwestern starting keeper Madison Doucette has a .420 save percentage.

This isn’t to say North Carolina can’t score, as they’ve posted 15.90 goals per game and 9.05 assists per game, good for 11th and third in the league, respectively.  The Tar Heels have a dynamic duo in senior attackers Jamie Ortega and Katie Hoeg, who have posted 107 and 105 points, respectively. Hoeg is fantastic at setting up goals, with 70 assists and a nation-best 3.50 per game, while Ortega is the finisher of the two, scoring 81 goals of her own this year. These two will be key to watch for the Northwestern defenders if they make it that far.

While North Carolina may appear to be a defensive stronghold with fantastic scoring threats, they do have a weakness: turnovers. The Tar Heels, as good as they are, give up an NCAA-leading 10.50 turnovers per game. While it hasn’t come back to bite them just yet, it’ll be a critical element of the game if the ’Cats take them on, as Northwestern has caused 10 turnovers per game. If the 'Cats can take advantage of that, they may just be able to solve the stronghold.

The verdict

There’s no doubt that this will be the greatest challenge Northwestern faces this season, whether it be the all-around dominance of their first opponent or the unique aspects of their potential championship matchup. Yet with one of the best front six in the nation and the ability to run circles around their opponents if necessary – along with what we’ve already seen in the NCAA Tournament so far – it’s hard for us to pick against the ’Cats.

Also, come on: it’s Northwestern. You seriously expect us to pick against them for a national championship?

Let's get the party started. Photo by Maren Kranking / North by Northwestern