It might be time to build a bigger trophy case. Wildcat women athletes are developing a surprising habit of winning national titles. The women’s lacrosse team won the NCAA championship — again — and women’s tennis tandem Cristelle Grier and Alexis Prousis won the NCAA doubles title, while women’s softball reached the championship series.
When women’s lacrosse topped Dartmouth College 7-4 to win its second consecutive NCAA national championship in Boston in late May, the Wildcats became the first team in University history to win back-to-back NCAA titles.
Led by four goals from senior attacker Aly Josephs and a gritty performance from midfielder Sarah Albrecht (WCAS06), the Wildcats overcame an injury to leading scorer Kristen Kjellman and made the most of their opportunities against the NCAA’s stingiest defense.
The title match pitted the best offense (Northwestern averaged 16.23 goals per game) against the best defense (Dartmouth allowed just 6.68 goals per game) in women’s lacrosse. But the Wildcats beat Dartmouth at its own game. In a rematch of last season’s National Championship semifinal, Northwestern limited Dartmouth to just 10 shots and held the Big Green scoreless in the final 25 minutes.
“Although it wasn’t our best offensive day, it was our defense that helped us win the national title this weekend,” said Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte Hiller.
The Wildcats suffered a serious blow when Kjellman, now a senior attacker, went down with an ankle sprain with a little more than a minute to play in the first half. She returned in the second half but did not score. With Kjellman hobbled, Albrecht switched from midfield to attack, where she scored two game-tying goals, added an assist and provided an essential emotional lift.
“I don’t think it mattered where I put her. She was just on a mission to really put the team on her back and lead this team to another championship,” Amonte Hiller said of Albrecht.
Albrecht, who scored the game-winning goal in an 11-10 come-from-behind overtime win over Duke University in the semifinals, was named the tournament’s most outstanding player. The semifinal win over Duke, a back-and-forth affair with eight ties and seven lead changes, avenged a regular season loss to the Blue Devils, the Wildcats’ lone blemish in a 20-1 season. Northwestern is 41-1 over the past two seasons and winners of 55 of its last 58 games.
One of Amonte Hiller’s first recruits, Albrecht helped rebuild the program from scratch. A four-year captain, Albrecht joined the Wildcats in 2002, Northwestern’s first season of Division I competition in the modern era. She closed her Northwestern career with top 10 rankings in career goals, assists and points and, most important, two national titles.
“I think she is their heart and soul,” Dartmouth head coach Amy Patton said after the championship. “The kid plays with a lot of emotion. She is really gritty out there, and I have always been impressed with her play.”
Albrecht, from the Boston suburb of Braintree, Mass., earned this championship in front of a hometown crowd. Her entourage made up part of an NCAA women’s lacrosse championship record 5,684 fans at Boston University’s Nickerson Field.
Albrecht hopes she’s in the stands if the ’Cats make a run at a third title in 2007. It’s not an unrealistic aspiration. Northwestern graduates only three starters from this national championship team. If anyone can put together a lacrosse dynasty, it’s Amonte Hiller, who won two titles at the University of Maryland, part of the Terps’ seven-year dominance of the sport.
After the season, Kjellman picked up the Tewaaraton Award as the nation’s top female lacrosse player, becoming the first player from a school outside the Eastern Time Zone to win the trophy. The three-time Intercollegiate Women’s Lacrosse Coaches Association All-American also won the Honda Award, honoring the top collegiate female lacrosse athlete, for a second consecutive year.
— Sean Hargadon
Tennis in Tandem
Cristelle Grier and Alexis Prousis weren’t fazed by the fact that they were unseeded and ranked 13th heading into May’s NCAA Championships doubles tournament in Palo Alto, Calif.
“With doubles, it’s always tricky to rank people,” said Grier (WCAS06), who graduated in June as the winningest singles player in Northwestern and Big Ten Conference history. “I don’t think we took anyone by surprise. I think people knew how good we were.”
Turns out that Grier and Prousis were very good. The pair knocked off five doubles teams, including Stanford University’s top-ranked and top-seeded duo, on their way to the 2006 NCAA doubles national title, the latest prestigious achievement for Northwestern’s women’s tennis program. (Northwestern won its only other women’s tennis title when Katrina Adams [C89] and Diane Donnelly Stone [C87] won the doubles national championship in 1987. See “Tennis: A Great Match for Katrina Adams,” winter 2004.)
Grier and Prousis beat No. 16 Arizona State University, No. 8 University of California, Berkeley, and No. 10 Georgia Tech before topping Stanford in the semifinals, setting up the championship match against No. 7 Fresno State University. Northwestern defeated Fresno State 6-4, 6-1, winning the last four games of the second set to take the national title.
The Wildcats as a team won their eighth-straight Big Ten Championship in the 2005–06 season, one shy of the record held by Indiana University, and were ranked eighth in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association’s final poll. The team advanced to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Championships for the third time in the program’s history, finishing in a tie for fifth place. The Wildcats sent three players — Grier, Prousis and freshman Georgia Rose — to the Championships’ singles tournament.
But it was the doubles championship that served as the capstone for both Northwestern’s season and Grier’s college career.
Even before winning the doubles title, Grier, who grew up in London just steps from Wimbledon, where her father works as director of championships, had left her mark on Northwestern’s women’s tennis.
She entered her final season having already established the school record for career wins. She completed her career with an overall record of 181-38 and a Big Ten record of 46-1, the best individual record ever posted in the conference. She is the first Northwestern player to be named a singles All-American after each of her four seasons, and in 2006 she was also named a doubles All-American for the third time in her career. Grier also became the second player in conference history to be named All-Big Ten four straight times, and she was named 2006 ITA Midwest Player of the Year.
Head coach Claire Pollard paired Grier and Prousis, a School of Communication senior from Lake Forest, Ill., at the beginning of the season while experimenting with different combinations for her doubles teams, even though the two had struggled while playing together in the 2004–05 season. They made the most of their second chance, compiling a 39-12 record and winning their last 15 matches en route to the national title.
“We tried it a year ago, and it didn’t work out quite as well as expected,” said Pollard, who has led the Wildcats to the Big Ten title in each of her eight years at Northwestern (see “A Sense of Titlement,” fall 2005). “As this year went on, they just did a really good job and understood how to maximize their abilities together. Something clicked, and they started to play better and better as they put this string together.”
The doubles national championship represents a major benchmark for Northwestern’s women’s tennis, officially placing Northwestern among the country’s elite women’s tennis programs, Pollard said.
“We’ve developed a good national reputation,” she said. “People know they’re getting a tough match when they play us.
“[The national championship] helps reinforce that all our hard work pays off. It’s taken a lot of work from a lot of people to get here. Instead of talking about being there, now we are there, and that’s what feels good. We’ve done it.”
Grier and her husband, Martin Fox (WCAS06), who met in 2003 while Fox was covering the women’s tennis team for the Daily Northwestern, were married in April, and in June they moved to Rhode Island. Grier serves as an assistant coach for Yale University’s women’s tennis team in New Haven, Conn.
“I’ve enjoyed tennis so much, and it’s given a lot to me,” she said. “It gave me an opportunity to live in the United States and an opportunity to go to Northwestern, and it gave me a husband. Now it’s my turn to start paying that back.”
— Ryan Haggerty (J07)
To the Brink
Kate Drohan is Northwestern’s third coach in the 30-year history of the softball program and the second to take the Wildcats to the Women’s College World Series. But she’s the first ’Cat softball coach to take a Northwestern squad to the National Championship series.
With a mix of senior leadership, youthful excitement and dominating pitching, the Wildcats beat some of the best teams in the country before falling to the University of Arizona in the National Championship series.
Drohan’s first five Northwestern recruits, Kristen Amegin (WCAS06), Ashley Crane (SESP06), Jamie Dotson (WCAS06), Courtnay Foster (WCAS06) and Sheila McCorkle (WCAS06), provided the senior leadership for the national runners-up, who won a school-record 50 games.
“When I recruited this senior class, I made it very clear to them that the World Series was the goal,” said Drohan, who has a 186-90-1 record in five seasons at Northwestern. “As the program grew so did they.”
The Wildcats punctuated their postseason run with a touch of drama, winning three games in their final at-bats with a different hero every game. And ever the underdog, the ’Cats won the love of purple-clad fans from host Oklahoma City, Drohan’s “new favorite place to visit in June.”
“I’m quite sure I broke every rule,” Drohan said. “You know, ‘Keep your team out of the sun. Keep your team away from the crowds.’ I really wanted them to enjoy every moment. They were out signing autographs, talking with people. People really warmed up to us.”
Throughout the entire season, the Wildcats seemed destined for a trip to Oklahoma. They won the Big Ten Conference regular season title — Northwestern’s fifth and first in 20 years — with a 16-3 record, swept the conference postseason honors and hosted the Big Ten Tournament for the first time in program history.
After a second-place finish at the Big Ten Tournament, the NCAA seeding committee tabbed Northwestern with a four seed for the tournament, the Wildcats’ highest seed ever.
The ‘Cats swept through regional play and topped the University of Massachusetts in the Super Regional, earning Northwestern its first appearance in the World Series in 20 years.
In their first game at Don E. Porter ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City, the Wildcats faced the University of Alabama. Down to her final strike with Northwestern trailing 5-4, then-freshman right fielder Erin Dyer knocked the next pitch over the center field wall for a game-tying home run to the deepest part of the park.
On the mound, Foster dominated the Crimson Tide after coming on in relief in the sixth inning, recording 13 of 14 outs by strikeout. The only other out was recorded by center fielder McCorkle on a full-extension diving catch that earned the No. 7 spot on ESPN SportsCenter’s top 10 plays of the day. The ’Cats eventually won the game on a Tammy Williams single, her fourth of the game.
“That win was the key to the tournament,” Drohan said.
On the second day, Wildcat ace Eileen Canney, Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, hurled a one-hitter against the University of Tennessee, shutting down a Volunteer lineup that had not tallied less than four hits in a game all season.
Needing only one win to reach the National Championship series, Northwestern faced the University of California, Los Angeles, 11-time national champions and the No. 1 team in the country. Trailing 1-0, the Bruins rallied in their final at-bat to tie the game. But in the first extra frame, Williams, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, immediately clubbed a home run to give Northwestern a 2-1 lead. Cooper followed Williams with another blast, ensuring a 3-1 win and sending Northwestern to its first-ever championship series.
In the title series, Northwestern proved overmatched by the balanced attack of the Arizona Wildcats. Arizona ace Alicia Hollowell tossed two shutouts (8-0, 5-0), including a one-hit gem in the first game of the series, to give Arizona its seventh national title.
Drohan’s years at Northwestern have been defined by progress. Her first team failed to reach the postseason. In 2003, the Wildcats made the NCAA Regionals. They won two games in regional play the next year, but exited quickly. In 2005, they made it to the Super Regional. After finishing second this year there is only one way to improve.
— Ryan Morton (J08)
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