The Northwestern women's lacrosse team -- defending national champs, in case you hadn't heard -- kicks off its season tomorrow at Stanford. Our Wildcats are ranked No. 1 in the preseason poll and will be looking to capture their seventh title in eight years. I'll have a full season preview up tomorrow, since I haven't written it yet, but for today, to get SoP's lacrosse coverage started, I thought I'd share an interview I did with senior attacker Shannon Smith.
Smith, simply put, was a sensation for the Wildcats last year. She won the Tewaaraton Trophy (lacrosse's version of the Heisman), after leading the NCAA in points (128) and points per game (5.57). Her 86 goals broke the NU single season mark, and her points total was the seventh best total ever in Division 1 history.
So how does she top that? Being picked Lax Magazine's Division 1 Preseason Player of the Year is a good start. She needs 63 goals to break Kristen Kjellman's NU career record of 250, and she's 131 points shy of Hannah Nielson's NU career mark of 398.
I talked to the Long Island native about her amazing season last year, the team's outlook this season and the pressure of being defending national champions.
SoP: You've been an impact player ever since you got to NU, but last year you really took the NCAA by storm, winning the Tewaaraton Trophy. How are you feeling going into this season and what have you been working on to improve?
SS: For me, I can't look back on what I did. The only thing I can do is see what I can become better at. It's attacking harder with my left hand, being more patient and not having so many turnovers, not forcing the issue on the field and letting it come to me, not being so overly aggressive. The biggest thing for me is not looking at last season and just looking forward to this season and what I have to do for the team.
SoP: Last season obviously was a big success for the team, with the NCAA title, but it wasn't always easy, especially with the midseason losses to Florida and Johns Hopkins. What was the difference at the end of the season and what went into making yourselves a championship team?
SS: Last season was a huge learning experience for us. We were constantly doing things wrong in the beginning in January and February. But we came together as a team and each day, we got better from what we did the previous day, which really helped us down the line. I think those two losses really shaped our season for us. It showed people that we thought we were working hard, but we had to work 100 times harder than what we were doing. We really pushed each other to reach beyond our maximum potential. Our coaches did a fantastic job, always preparing us, always challenging us. It was exciting, it was fun, and now we're off to a new year, and this year it's going to be exciting and it'll be a journey.
SoP: How's the team looking so far?
SS: Good. I think we're really starting to come together. Each day we're improving, which is good. Playing in the US Lacrosse Champion Challenge [two weeks ago, when NU defeated Team England, 9-3, but lost to Team USA, 16-6], got to show us where we were at. We were able to come back after that, make some changes that we needed to make to be successful for our first game.
SoP: Is there more pressure on you guys as defending champions? Or was there more pressure last year, when you were coming off a season where you weren't champions for the first time in a while?
SS: It depends on how you look at it. Last year, the pressure was that being such a historic program, everybody knows Northwestern and wanted to see how we would bounce back. Every time you win a title, there's pressure to come back, but we don't look at it like that. We look at it like a challenge. We feed off the pressure. Me personally, I like the pressure, I like the game on the line. Those are the things you look for as an athlete. There are teams out there that want to bring you down. And you need to work harder to prevent that.
SoP: What have you guys been working on in the preseason? How does a national championship team get better?
SS: For us it's just coming together as a team offensively and defensively. We're still working on the basics, stickwork, ground balls, homing in on the defensive footwork, defensive positioning. And offensively, just drilling in the concepts and really getting to know each other on the field. Throughout the season that's what you always go back to. You need to have those basics really down before you go to more complex things.
SoP: You guys always play a tough schedule, but this year's schedule has some real tough games right out of the gate, Friday against No. 6 Stanford and then the next weekend against No. 5 Duke. How are you guys feeling going into those first games?
SS: Right now we have Stanford, and we're not looking ahead. I'm sure our coaches are always looking at our schedule and what we need to do, but that's what they have to do as a coaching staff. They can't just look at one team. Behind the scenes I'm sure they're preparing for the other teams we'll be playing. But right now, we're just focused on what we have to do against Stanford.
SoP: You were far and away the top scorer on the team last year, with 86 goals. [Second-leading scorer Erin Fitzgerald had 40 goals.] Is there a worry that the team is too dependent on you for scoring, or do you feel that other players will be stepping up this season to provide that second and third scoring threat?
SS: I don't think at all that we're too dependent on me for scoring. Last year that was my role for the team and that's what I had to do in some games, but when it came down it, we had a lot of people step up coming up with big goals. In the ALC championship, there was Amanda Macaluso coming up with the huge game-winning goal, and then in the final, you had Jess Russo and Kara Mupo with big goals. I think this year, we have a lot of good freshmen, a lot of good sophomores and juniors, and I think one thing we really focused on was coming together as a team on the offensive end. We're developing a lot of options for our offense and a whole lot of variations and threats out there.
SoP: In the ALC, you've got Florida and Johns Hopkins, which both beat you last year. And you also have solid programs in Ohio State, Vanderbilt, Penn State. How do you see the conference race shaping up?
SS: It's going to be a very competitive conference. I'm looking forward to that. That's exciting and that's due to the growth of the game across the country. We have one of the strongest conferences, I believe, in college lacrosse right now.
SoP: When you guys play Stanford, you'll have a former teammate Danielle Spencer on the other sideline as an assistant coach. How weird will that be for you?
SS: For me, I played with Danielle for two years, so it's weird, but we've played a lot of teams where there's a lot of past Northwestern graduates on the sidelines. It's exciting for us to see that they have a future in the game and how well they're doing in their career. It'll be good to see Dannielle.
SoP: Off the field, what are you majoring in, and what are your plans for after graduation?
SS: I'm an economics major and business minor. I'm definitely looking forward to graduating. These four years went by really fast. I'm actually going to go to grad school and get my master's in teaching. I'm planning on coaching high school lacrosse. My parents own a club lacrosse team on Long Island called the Long Island Top Guns, and I'm planning on helping coach that and see what happens.