No wonder the Northwestern lacrosse team has had so much fight.
The Wildcats have won seven NCAA titles in the last eight years and were going for their third straight Friday against North Carolina in the national semifinals at Villanova.
Northwestern stumbled in an 11-4 loss, but that can’t tarnish what has happened along the Evanston lakefront for nearly a decade.
The Wildcats were appearing in their ninth straight round of four and had been in eight straight national title games heading into the North Carolina game. Remarkable.
To stay one step ahead year after year after year, Northwestern has been incorporating a unique workout into its training regimen. The players turn into fighters once a week, and they box.
Yep, we’re talking gloves and jabs and uppercuts. The Wildcats wake early to take over a small gym in Evanston, and they let the punching bags have it.
“A boxer’s mentality is tough, and when they’re up against the ropes they can grind it out. That can translate to our game,” Northwestern senior midfielder Taylor Thornton told Channel 5.
“Maybe if we’re down, we’ll have the mental toughness. We’re strong; we’re used to pain.”
Local trainer Dave Englund pushes the Wildcats hard. He says he’s training them for nothing less than a national championship every year.
“It’s changed our program,” said Northwestern lacrosse coach Kelly Amonte Hiller of the boxing. “The girls are not only pushing themselves with boxing, but also Dave is such an incredible motivator. It’s almost like a sports psychology session when they come over here.
“Dave pieces a lot of different aspects together to put them in adverse situations and to give them (work on) athleticism with balance. It’s a cool thing for our girls. We’ve really enjoyed it, and it’s been an edge for us to continue our success.”
There haven’t been many times over the last eight years that the Northwestern lacrosse team has played the role of underdog.
But in Friday’s semifinal against North Carolina, the Wildcats were in that position.
They were looking to avenge a loss to the Tarheels during the regular season. In fact, North Carolina gave Northwestern its first loss of the season (11-8) in February.
The Tarheels also have been relatively successful, perhaps more so than any other team, in pushing Northwestern to the brink in recent years. The last four games of the heated series between the two teams have been decided by a total of 6 goals.
“Who doesn’t like to be the underdog,” Northwestern midfielder Taylor Thornton asked playfully this week.
Being an underdog can be a good thing. Head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller says that sometimes the best thing for her team is a wake-up call that rekindles everyone’s inner hunger.
“When you are so successful on a consistent basis, it’s easy to slip into just getting comfortable,” Amonte Hiller said. “For us, it takes a loss to snap (out of that). We sometimes need to be shocked into what we need to do.”
In the big picture, Northwestern is hardly an underdog to North Carolina. The Wildcats are still up in the series 10-4.
North Carolina will now face No. 1 Maryland. The championship game will be televised nationally Sunday at 7 p.m. on ESPNU.
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