As per usual, Northwestern will have to overcome a gauntlet to live up to the program’s annual sky-high standards, but seven games in, the Wildcats already look like they can capitalize on this season’s talented roster. Northwestern has jumped to a promising start this year. Ranked #6 in the nation at the start of the season, the Wildcats are 4-2 after having beaten Louisville (21-11), #25 Dartmouth (21-15), #16 Duke (21-20), and Canisius (20-6) but dropped an overtime match against then #7 Syracuse (14-15) and lost to #3 UNC (21-11). This past week, Northwestern dropped from #5 to #8 in the national rankings.
This year, the Wildcats will play against seven top 20 teams including three against the top teams in the country: #1 Boston College on March 9, #2 Maryland on April 11 and #3 UNC on March 2. Although the ‘Cats have history with the Terrapins and Tar Heels, Northwestern hasn’t faced off against BC since 2013.
The close game with Duke was no surprise – the ‘Cats and Blue Devils have historically played tight games for the past four years. Even so, with Selena Lasota injured, the team is relying on Lauren Gilbert to be their leading scorer this season. After scoring a cumulative three goals all of last year, Gilbert already has 12 goals over the course of the past three games. Until Lasota is back, Gilbert seems to be the team’s go-to scorer now.
As the ‘Cats head into their tougher games beginning in March, they’ll need to amp up their defense against stronger offensive teams like the Golden Eagles. BC has multiple strong attackers, so they don’t just rely on a few players to score the majority of their goals. However, Northwestern is a depth-heavy squad – the players know how to work with each other and play to each other’s strengths.
The middle of the season should be fairly easy for Northwestern. The ‘Cats should topple Rutgers, Marquette and #11 Penn State -- Northwestern has consistently beaten these teams and should have no problem doing so again.
Toward the end of the season, the ‘Cats will play Maryland, who have consistently beaten Northwestern with relative ease. In 2018, Maryland won 20-16, and in 2017 they won 18-9 and 14-6. Already this year, Maryland beat then #4 now unranked Florida 17-12, but UNC beat Maryland 16-15 in double OT. UNC also beat Northwestern earlier this year. It remains to be seen if that drastic loss will shut down the ‘Cats more than expected – already, they dropped from #5 to #8.
In the Big Ten Championship, the Wildcats will most likely have to go through Penn State, Johns Hopkins, or Notre Dame to get to the title game. If all goes well, the championship game should be between Maryland and Northwestern. They’re projected to be the strongest teams in the conference, and if they maintain their ranking throughout the season, they will most likely face against each other in the final.
Given the propensity of ranked matches they’ll have to play, the Wildcats have a packed and challenging year ahead. They have started the season strong – and depending on how their March games go – particularly against BC and Maryland – they could win the Big Ten and perhaps make it to the NCAA semifinals this year.