After Northwestern squeaked out an overtime victory against VCU on Friday,the Wildcats are set to finish their first weekend of the season with a showdown with James Madison, an NCAA Tournament qualifier from last season. The game will kick off at 1 p.m.
Matchup to Watch: Dukes forward Ashley Herndon vs. NU’s defense
James Madison’s greatest offensive threat is its dynamic attacker Ashley Herndon, who netted 14 goals last season to lead the Dukes. She has the pedigree to make any team nervous, as the senior was named the CAA’s preseason player of the yearand was invited to a U.S. Women’s National Team U-23 camp in May.Defenses can’t just play her purely as a threat to score, either — she notched six assists last seasonand was credited with an assist on James Madison’s opening goal of its first game this year, a 4-3 double overtime defeat to Arkansas.
Meanwhile, the Cats’ defense picked up where they left off last season in their opener, holding the Rams to just one shot on goal in a shutout victory. The back line has proven to have the talent and cohesion to stop star players in the past. NU needed extra time to break through with a goal against VCU, underscoring the importance of keeping a player like Herndon from putting the Cats behind early.
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.