Northwestern was dealt a shocking blow on Saturday after falling to North Carolina in the Final Four. This shocked a lot of people. The Wildcats have won seven of the last nine NCAA championships and many fans have come to expect them to win titles annually. Anything less than that is a disappointment.
This standard isn't fair for any team. What Northwestern has done since 2005 is nothing short of remarkable. Kelly Amonte Hiller is 215-33 in her twelve years as the coach of Northwestern women's lacrosse. She is 34-3 in the NCAA tournament with seven national championships. From 2005-2010, Northwestern won a record 25 straight tournament games before falling to Maryland in the championship game. The 'Cats followed that "letdown" with two more national titles in 2011 and 2012.
Northwestern has been a dominant force for so long in the sport, which is why seeing them get a taste of their own medicine was so surprising. Against North Carolina, they were the frustrated team. They got six yellow cards (Alyssa Leonard and Gabriella Flibotte were both sent off). North Carolina scored four of their goals with a man advantage. Northwestern had scored 67 goals on free position shots coming into the game, while giving up just 23. NU was 0-9 on Friday, while North Carolina scored four in five attempts.
In many ways, it was just a bad game for Northwestern. NU will generally score if they get that many free position opportunities. Other than the score, none of the other stats were that lopsided. There is no shame in losing a game to a team of North Carolina's caliber. But they did lose, and in the NCAA tournament no less. And it was against a team that they had lost to earlier in the season. Prior to last year, NU had never lost to an opponent twice in one year. They've now done it in each of the last two.
Does this mean that Northwestern is no longer a very good lacrosse team? No, they're still one of the best in the country and should compete for titles in the near future. But are the 'Cats head and shoulders above their competition? Probably not.
Northwestern will certainly be able to win NCAA championships in the near future, but fans can't continue to expect that every year.
I'm not saying this because of one game. While Northwestern has been excellent since 2010, the Wildcats haven't dominated women's lacrosse the way they did from 2005-2009. That's not because NU has gotten worse. The elite teams in women's lacrosse have caught up to some extent.
From 2005 to 2009, Northwestern put together one of the most successful five year stretches in sports history. That's not an exaggeration. They won the national title in each of those years. They were a combined 105-3 in those five seasons. Northwestern had a player win the Teewaraton Award four times: Kristen Kjellman won it in 2006 and 2007, and Hannah Nielsen won it in 2008 and 2009. They outscored their opponents by an average of at least seven goals per game in each of those season. The average score of a Northwestern women's lacrosse game from 2005 to 2009 was NU 16.13, Opponents 6.71.
You read that right. Over a five year period in a Division I sport, Northwestern outscored opponents by an average of 9.42 goals per game. NU did have some close games in the NCAA tournament, but did win five Final Four games by at least four goals. To cap it off, the defeated North Carolina 21-7 in the 2009 national title game. They finished that year 23-0.
To expect that level of play to continue would have been unrealistic, but NU almost kept it up in 2010. They finished the year 20-2 with a loss to Maryland in the national championship game. It was the first time they had lost two games in a season since 2004. Northwestern began that title game on a 6-0 run, but Maryland closed the first half with eight of the next 10 goals. They would win the game 13-11. Despite not winning the championship, Northwestern outscored opponents by almost eight goals a game that year. I don't think that the national title game was a "turning point," but we haven't seen NU toy with the rest of women's college lacrosse since.
In 2011, NU was not the defending champion. Six years after their run began, other teams finally began to catch up to the program Kelly Amonte Hiller had built. That year, Northwestern outscored their opponents by a "mere" 4.96 goals per game. NU lost two games in a row (to Johns Hopkins and Florida) for the first time since 2003. They came away with a national title, but their wins against North Carolina and Maryland in the Final Four each came by a single goal. I'm not saying this to belittle a great accomplishment, but to show that NU no longer had a stranglehold on women's college lacrosse.
2012 was a similar year for Kelly Amonte Hiller's team. The won a national championship, but suffered two losses to the same team (Florida) for the first time in her coaching tenure. They outscored their opponents by "just" 5.87 goals per game. In the Final Four, NU beat Maryland by just a goal in the semifinal and Syracuse by two to take the national title.
The championship was the team's seventh in eight years, but they were on another stratosphere when winning the first five. They were still the best team in lacrosse in 2011 and 2012, but their numbers were merely mortal. Winning those championships was impressive, the rest of women's college lacrosse elite teams were catching up to the Wildcats.
On Friday, casual fans finally saw that as NU lost by seven. Northwestern's season ended before the national championship game for the first time since 2004. That was also the last year that Northwestern lost more than two games in a season. The Wildcats were outplayed by a team that had beaten them earlier in the season for the second year in a row.
All that sounds fatalistic, but it's not. It just puts in perspective how dominant Northwestern was from 2005 to 2009 and how unsustainable that run was. In those years, it was Northwestern and everyone else. Now, the Wildcats have to contend with a capable group of equally elite teams in North Carolina, Maryland, Syracuse and Florida. Northwestern is still very much among the elite teams, but they're no longer above them.
If you missed the national title game this year (which I definitely did), you didn't see that North Carolina went on to win the game in double overtime thanks to a sudden death goal from Sammy Jo Tracy. So the last three times that Northwestern has lost in the NCAA tournament (2004, 2010 and 2013), they've lost to the eventual national championship. There's no shame in that.
What Northwestern has done and continues to do is incredible. They are still among the best programs in women's college lacrosse. They have a good chance at winning another championship next year. But if you think a title next year and in seasons beyond is a given (as someone implied during last week's game), you might want to readjust your expectations.