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Fall Sports Preview – Field Hockey: New-look lineup guns for revenge

Fall Sports Preview – Field Hockey: New-look lineup guns for revenge
(Daily file photo by Nathan Richards)

Northwestern ended last season with a bitter taste in its mouth, losing in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals to top-seeded Maryland in double overtime. But the Wildcats will have the chance to cleanse their palates this year, when the team faces six opponents who bested them in games last season.

However, NU will have to move forward without the seven seniors who graduated following last year’s tragic loss to the Terrapins. The Cats lose four seniors who started in all 21 matches last season, including second-team All-American back Lisa McCarthy.

McCarthy was a pivotal component in NU’s stifling defense, which held teams to an average of 1.52 goals per game — No. 15 in the nation in the category — and recorded six shutouts last season. But McCarthy, the team’s anchor, was also a major facilitator for the Cat’s offense. She finished with 13 assists last season and ranked No. 16 in the country in assists per game.

NU finished last season with the 11th highest-scoring offense and the 8th most assists per game in the NCAA. But the Cats’ offense centered on its ability to generate penalty corners, as the team averaged 9.38 per game and finished second in the country in the category. With the loss of McCarthy, NU will have to look for a replacement for the team’s top goal-feeder, and whoever takes on the role will have big shoes to fill.

Although the team is losing several critical players, the Cats will return their dynamic scoring tandem in senior midfielders Dominique Masters and Isabel Flens — two of just three seniors on the 2016 roster.

Masters finished as a top-10 scorer in the country, racking up 17 goals in 20 games. Flens, who was the No. 23 scorer in the nation last season, finished with just 1 less goal than Masters,  as the two combined for 80 of NU’s 197 points and 33 of the team’s 68 goals. With one more season under the duo’s belt, Flens and Masters will look to continue to improve and carry the team’s offense through a taxing regular-season schedule that features nine of 19 games against teams that qualified for the NCAA Tournament.

But, thanks to strong recruiting, Flens and Masters won’t have to do it alone.

The Cats added seven of the nation’s most coveted recruits to the roster this year, making for a much younger team than last year’s. According to MAX Field Hockey, the team will be adding five ranked recruits and four in the top-50, including No. 9 forward Lakin Barry and No. 12 goalkeeper Caroline Hughes.

Coach Tracey Fuchs  will have until Aug. 26 when NU takes on Boston University to stitch together a lineup that gets the most out of her young roster. But even with a largely new, fresh-faced team, the Cats will remain at the forefront of one of the strongest conferences in the NCAA.

Fall Sports Preview – Men’s Soccer: Northwestern looks for rebound season

Fall Sports Preview – Men’s Soccer: Northwestern looks for rebound season
(Daily file photo by Nathan Richards)

Back in Evanston after playing last year’s home games at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Illinois, Northwestern will attempt to recover from a disappointing 2015 campaign without a few key departed stars.

Midfielder Cole Missimo and forward Joey Calistri, the second-leading scorer in NU history, have both moved on to the professional ranks and goalkeeper Zak Allen, who led the Big Ten in saves last season, has also graduated.

But the Wildcats do return five of their top seven scorers from last year’s team, including senior forward Mike Roberge and sophomore midfielder Camden Buescher — one of the team’s most reliable starters as a freshman a year ago. On the back end, a foursome of freshman defenders will be tasked with replacing departed seniors Henry Herrill and Nati Schnitman, and junior Francisco Tomasino will be the eldest goalkeeper on the roster in Allen’s absence.

This new-look roster will be tasked with restarting the program’s 12-year streak of .500-or-better seasons that was snapped last fall.

Despite being outshot by a massive 308-158 margin over the course of the season, a number of dramatic late victories gave NU an outside shot at the 2015 Big Ten regular-season title entering the final game of the regular season. However, a road loss to bottom-dweller Wisconsin, followed by another defeat in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, doomed the team’s opportunity for an improbable conference championship and for an NCAA Tournament bid.  

Fortunately, the nomadic schedule of a year ago — the Cats played six home games in the Chicago Fire’s stadium in Bridgeview and two others at the homes of Loyola and Illinois-Chicago — won’t be a problem this season.

Coach Tim Lenahan’s team will play its first game at Lakeside Field in more than 21 months on Aug. 26, hosting Florida Gulf Coast in the season opener. Non-conference dates with Santa Clara, Denver and Marquette then lead up to the Big Ten opener Sept. 9 at Ohio State.

NU will host matches against three of its Chicago-area rivals (DePaul, UIC and Loyola) later in the season and also make a return to Toyota Park when the Cats face Notre Dame on Oct. 18. The 17-game regular season slate will conclude Oct. 30 against Penn State, with the conference tournament scheduled the following week.

With a more travel-friendly schedule and another year of experience under the belts of most of the starters, the Cats could be poised for a bounce-back season.

Fall Sports Preview – Men’s Golf: Northwestern enters fall season with lineup questions

Fall Sports Preview – Men’s Golf: Northwestern enters fall season with lineup questions
(Daily file photo by Nathan Richards)

Northwestern is looking to build on a promising, if inconsistent, 2015-16 season, which ended with seventh-place finish in an NCAA Regional tournament, two spots short of qualifying for the NCAA Championship.

The team’s biggest star is junior Dylan Wu, who led the Wildcats in scoring average, top-10 and top-20 finishes. His two third-place finishes were the best of any NU golfer last year.

Wu and junior Sam Triplett are the only returning upperclassmen on the team, as the only other Cats to play in all 11 tournaments last year, Josh Jamieson and Andrew Whalen, both graduated in 2016.

This leaves coach David Inglis with a wide open roster coming into the year, as five golfers compete for the team in each tournament, and while Wu is almost certain to compete in each tournament, the other four spots will likely be wide open.

Along with Triplett, sophomores Ryan Lumsden, Luke Miller and Pete Griffith will compete with graduate transfer Conor Richardson and the incoming freshman class for playing time.

Of the trio of sophomores, Lumsden turned in the most impressive performance last year, finishing tied for seventh at the Puerto Rico Classic and also finishing second on the team in scoring average on the year.

Miller and Griffith will need to show improvement if they hope to lock down consistent starting spots this year. Miller played in six tournaments last year, and his best finish was tied for 40th, while Griffith participated in five, with his best finish at 24th place.

NU’s seventh-place regionals finish last year was largely due to a terrible second round where the Cats shot the 13th-best round in the 14 team field, essentially ending their chance at NCAAs qualification.

Although NU’s regionals qualification in 2015-16 marked a major improvement after the team failed to qualify in 2014-15, the team is still searching for its first NCAAs qualification since the 2010-11 season and the first such berth under Inglis.

With a year of experience under their belts, this may just be the year for the young Cats.

Fall Sports Previews – Women’s Swimming: Wildcats aim to build on last season’s improvement

Fall Sports Previews – Women’s Swimming: Wildcats aim to build on last season’s improvement
(Daily file photo by Daniel Tian)

Northwestern improved handsomely last season, its first under coach Abby Steketee.

After taking 10th at the 2014 Big Ten Championships –– the team’s lowest finish since 1983 –– the Wildcats scored more than three times as many points in 2015’s edition to finish eighth overall.

At Big Tens, NU was led by then-freshman diver Olivia Rosendahl who finished second in platform diving and went on to place fourth in the event at the NCAA Diving Championships.

The Cats also saw phenomenal swims from then-junior Melissa Postoll, who broke school records in the 200-yard backstroke and the 200-yard individual medley. Postoll wasn’t NU’s fastest swimmer in the 200 IM last season prior to the championship, but she smashed her personal best in the event during a morning preliminaries session and returned that evening to capture the school record.

Since that breakout meet at Big Tens, Postoll has been on a tear, qualifying for semifinals in the 200-meter backstroke at U.S. Olympic Trials, ultimately finishing 14th overall in the event.

Then-junior Annika Winsnes was the only other NU swimmer to compete in an individual championship final at Big Tens last season, where she swam a season-best 49.41 seconds to finish seventh in the 100-yard freestyle.

The Cats will return most of last year’s team for their 2016-17 campaign after losing only five seniors to graduation. In addition, their incoming freshman class has already been tested at swimming’s highest levels.

The Class of 2020 includes Sandra Freeman and Krystal Lara, both of whom competed at U.S. Olympic Trials in June, and Valerie Gruest Slowing, who earned the right to represent Guatemala in the 800 meter freestyle at the 2016 Olympic Games.

Slowing holds a dozen Guatemalan national records in freestyle and butterfly events, including the records for every long course freestyle distance except 50 meters.

Fall Sports Preview – Women’s Golf: After NCAAs heartbreak, many key golfers return

Fall Sports Preview – Women’s Golf: After NCAAs heartbreak, many key golfers return
(Daily file photo by Nathan Richards)

Of all 19 varsity sports teams at Northwestern, the women’s golf team may have suffered the most heartbreaking end to a season of any squad on campus last year.

Needing to finish in the top-8 after the fourth round of stroke play at the NCAA Championship in order to qualify for the team match play round of competition, the Wildcats came up a single stroke short of qualification, taking 1,167 strokes over the four days to Oregon’s 1,166 and heading home needing just more than what they turned in, the best season in school history.

Amid the heartbreak is one positive sign for this coming year — the entire starting lineup from last year’s team is back.

Junior and back-to-back Big Ten Player of the Year Hannah Kim is back to wreak havoc on golf courses throughout the nation. In 2016, Kim set NU records for lowest single round score, lowest 54-hole score and lowest single-season stroke average. She currently holds the Cats’ record for career stroke average through her two seasons as well.

The second best single-season scoring average in NU history belongs to sophomore Stephanie Lau after she turned in nine top-20 finishes in 11 events her freshman year. She also holed the most important putt of the season for the Cats to ensure a split of the Big Ten Championship with Ohio State for the second straight year.

The third best single-season scoring average in NU history belongs to senior Kacie Komoto, who earned that mark last year and led the team in top-10 finishes last year with six.

The other two returning members of the starting lineup, junior Sarah Cho and sophomore Janet Mao, may not have a top-3 scoring average mark in school history, but they also each won individual titles last year, as Cho won the Dick Mcguire Invitational to kick off the season, while Mao tied for the individual title as the team claimed its NCAA Regional title to secure a place in the NCAAs.

The Cats are led by reigning Big Ten Coach of the Year, Emily Fletcher, who guided the team to four tournament wins last season, but is still looking to qualify for the elusive top-8 match play bracket at the NCAAs.

Simply put, this team was great last year, and it’s back for more.

Fall Sports Preview – Men’s Swimming: Wildcats attempt to take step forward

Fall Sports Preview – Men’s Swimming: Wildcats attempt to take step forward
(Daily file photo by Daniel Tian)

When Olympian Jordan Wilimovsky returns to Evanston in the fall, Northwestern’s traditionally small team should get a big boost.

Without Wilimovsky, who holds school records in three events and qualified for the NCAA Championships each of his first three seasons as a Wildcat, NU finished eighth at the Big Ten Championships and did not send a swimmer to the NCAA meet. Wilimovsky, who won the 10-kilometer open water world championship in 2015, took the 2015-16 school year off to focus on training for the 2016 Summer Olympics.

The Cats had no standout performers and lost eight straight dual meets, including all four Big Ten matchups, to close the regular season. NU won just one dual against a Division I opponent, a late-October victory over crosstown rival UIC.

There are, however, positive signs for coach Jarod Schroeder heading into his eighth season leading the Cats. Rising sophomore Carter Page had the team’s fastest times in two longer-distance freestyle events, and fellow sophomore Tyler Lis led the team in the 200-yard backstroke and 400-yard individual medley. Lis’s 400 IM time made him the fourth-fastest in program history in that event.

Further, the Cats are expected to return 19 of 21 swimmers from last season, and NU’s eighth place finish at Big Tens was the program’s highest since 2009. Wilimovsky will offer a significant lift in the 1,650-yard freestyle, as he finished third at the NCAA Championships in that event in 2015. He also swam the 500-yard freestyle at NCAAs that season.

NU’s greatest success last season came on the diving board. Two divers reached the NCAA Zone Championships and incoming senior Andrew Cramer qualified for the NCAA Championships in two events. His top finish was 26th on the 3-meter springboard.

The Cats’ 2016-17 schedule is highlighted by the three-day TYR Invite, which NU hosts in November. The Cats will have just two dual meets at home and will swim all three Big Ten duals away from Evanston.

Fall Sports Preview – Volleyball: With new coach, Northwestern searches for success

Fall Sports Preview – Volleyball: With new coach, Northwestern searches for success
(Daily file photo by Nathan Richards)

Northwestern’s 2015 season was a roller coaster ride. Despite finishing under .500 for the first time since 2008, the Wildcats experienced some truly memorable moments. On October 10, NU took down defending national champion Penn State in front of a packed home crowd, by all accounts one of the biggest wins in program history.

However, the valleys seemed deeper than the peaks were high. There were numerous stretches last season when, on a long losing streak, the Cats failed to even win a set. NU went 6-14 in conference games, though that record can partially be attributed to the fact that the Big Ten is arguably the best volleyball conference in the country.

The Cats are hoping some changes will rectify these problems. Shane Davis was hired as the new coach, replacing Keylor Chan after Chan spent 16 years at the helm. Davis is coming off back-to-back national championships at the Loyola men’s program, and NU is hoping he can bring similar success to Evanston.

On the court, the Cats will be led by junior setter Taylor Tashima, who has started almost every game since arriving as a freshman. Tashima, who recently overcame a health scare, finished fifth in the conference with 10.89 assists per set and totaled more than 2,000 assists on the season, earning a Big Ten honorable mention for her efforts.

The front line will be comprised of juniors Symone Abbott and Gabrielle Hazen and seniors Kayla Morin and Maddie Slater. Abbott electrified as a freshman and improved as a sophomore, routinely notching double-digit kills. Slater and Morin were steady presences in the front last season, and Hazen contributed as well despite missing a few games due to illness.

NU will need to find a replacement for now-graduated libero Caroline Niedospial, the team’s best defensive player in 2015. The Cats have two liberos on the roster, sophomore Katie Kniep and redshirt-freshman Kaitlin Tavarez. Kniep will get the first crack at the starting job as Tavarez did not appear in a match last season, but it remains to be seen how the two will rotate, if at all, given the massive hole that Niedospial leaves behind.

Fall Sports Preview – Women’s Soccer: After NCAAs berth, Wildcats going for more

Fall Sports Preview – Women’s Soccer: After NCAAs berth, Wildcats going for more
(Daily file photo by Nathan Richards)

It’s been a long road back to national relevance for Northwestern. But for the first time in 17 years, last year’s Wildcats made the NCAA Tournament, setting the bar high for this season’s squad.

After a banner year that was capped off by an appearance in the second round of the NCAAs after a dramatic victory over Washington State in the first round, NU coach Michael Moynihan will look to consolidate his program’s position as a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten and nationally. And with many key contributors returning from last season’s young team, the Cats are poised for another memorable season.

NU was a defensive-minded team last year, looking to grind out results and rely on a strong presence at the back. That figures to stay the same this season, as all of the Cats’ first-choice starters in the back — junior goalkeeper Lauren Clem and outside backs Kassidy Gorman and Nikia Smith and sophomore center backs Kayla Sharples and Hannah Davison — return a year after notching a school-record 12 shutouts and finishing in the top 10 in the country in goals-against average.

To take the next step, NU will need to find ways to score at a better clip than last season’s 1.18 goals per game. Much of that burden will fall on junior forward Michelle Manning, a diminutive, confident attacker whose double-overtime goal lifted the Cats over the Cougars in the NCAAs. If the midfield, led by fifth-year senior Nandi Mehta and sophomore Marisa Viggiano, can control possession and provide good service, Manning has proven capable of finishing her chances when it counts.

The schedule appears to set up favorably for NU to rack up wins, as the non-conference slate features a single qualifier for the NCAAs, James Madison, while the Cats avoid last season’s top two regular-season finishers in the Big Ten, Wisconsin and defending national-champion Penn State. If NU can get by teams like Michigan and Minnesota at home and show well on the road against a usually-strong Rutgers team, the Cats could match or exceed last season’s record and make another compelling case for a spot in the NCAAs.

Fall Sports Preview – Cross Country: Wildcats looking for leap after difficult year

Fall Sports Preview – Cross Country: Wildcats looking for leap after difficult year
(Source: Northwestern Athletics)

In the spring’s outdoor track and field season, none of Northwestern’s runners earned a berth in the NCAA West Regional Championships, which first-year coach ‘A Havahla Haynes set as her team’s goal.

But although the Wildcats did not meet the goal that Haynes set for them and are set to lose a lot of runners to graduation, there were signs that the team could be on the rise entering this fall’s cross country season.

The biggest loss from last season’s team is now-graduated Elena Barham, who notched NU’s best 5,000- and 6,000-meter times last fall and was the team’s best 10,000-meter runner during the outdoor track season. With Barham and seven other seniors leaving from last season’s squad, younger runners like juniors Brooke Pigneri and Sara Coffey, who both showed flashes last year, will be counted on to step forward.

The Cats will also hope to get a boost from a pair of senior runners who struggled with injury last fall, Jena Pianin and Andrea Ostenso. The duo, who raced to top-16 finishes in the NCAA Midwest Regional in the fall of 2014, both missed large swaths of time last season and will be looking to reestablish themselves as top runners in their final year at NU.

The incoming freshman class boasts four new runners, most notably Aubrey Roberts, last year’s Wisconsin Gatorade Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year. The Eau Claire native won a Division 1 individual state championship last year and held up well in high-profile regional and national meets during her last year in high school.

Although a lot of senior contributors are leaving, there appear to be a lot of avenues for internal improvement for the Cats. So while her team fell short at the end of the outdoor track season, Haynes said she is hopeful for glory come the fall.