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Erin Coykendall and Northwestern are chasing a second straight national title.

Heady Erin Coykendall Has Always Been About Improving

May 23, 2024
Charlotte Varnes
Sophia Scheller

EVANSTON, Ill. — Northwestern attacker Erin Coykendall has spent many hours dwelling on game-time scenarios and what-ifs.

What can she do if opponents scout her behind-the-back shot? Perfect and utilize a behind-the-back fake. How can she best fool defenders when changing direction? Work on her speed mechanics and body language.

Shannon Brinson, her trainer back home in Rochester, N.Y., sends Coykendall Instagram reels of pick action — a big part of Northwestern’s game — and NBA players who play like her, such as Luka Dončić of the Dallas Mavericks.

She watches the videos, contemplates opponents’ next steps and reflects on how her game and Northwestern’s can improve.

“She’s definitely, without a doubt, the smartest lacrosse player we’ve ever had here,” assistant coach Scott Hiller said. “She’s a coach on the field. When she comes to talk lacrosse, you need to be ready because she has good, legit questions. She sees things most people don’t see.”

In Coykendall’s fifth year in Evanston, she’s a coach in every way but title. She has 41 goals and 55 assists in 2024, forming a fiery trio with 2023 Tewaaraton Award winner Izzy Scane and attacker/midfielder Madison Taylor that has led the Wildcats to the NCAA semifinals.

Yet even as Coykendall competes alongside some of the most talented players in college lacrosse, it feels like she views the game at a different level than anyone else.

On the eight-meter arc, she releases so quickly and with such power that opponents hardly have time to crash. She patiently waits for cuts before sending the ball into the heart of the defense. She’s a dangerous scorer, excelling in tight space near the crease.

There’s also a unique sense of ease to Coykendall’s game despite the difficulty of her most impressive maneuvers, like the behind-the-back goals and high-velocity rips.

She has long believed that a player can never be too comfortable with a lacrosse stick in hand. This approach took shape in her backyard growing up, where she practiced stick work each day after finishing her homework or going to practice. Her parents installed spotlights, allowing her to hit the rebounder and shoot on goal after dark. 

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That stick work improved her game, proving dangerous when paired with natural athleticism. Coykendall first picked up a fiddle stick at age 4 and had no trouble passing and catching. In elementary school, she and her father, Scott, played catch with a football on the sidelines at one of her sister’s lacrosse tournaments. A passerby pulled him aside.

“Do you know what you’ve got there?” the stranger asked. “Do you have any idea how good she is?”

“I know she’s athletic,” Scott Coykendall replied.

“There’s not a boy that age that can throw and catch a football from that distance,” the stranger said.

Coykendall was already outpacing boys on the lacrosse field. She started playing organized lacrosse with a boys’ team in kindergarten because there wasn’t a girls’ program nearby, and she emerged as a star player. She turned to girls’ lacrosse in sixth grade when boys began checking.

While her area lacked youth girls’ programs, there was no shortage of dominant women’s college players from the region. Coykendall watched local players like Danielle Spencer and Hilary Bowen become legends at Northwestern. When she attended Northwestern camps growing up, many players coaching her were from Rochester.

There was plenty Coykendall came to love about the Wildcats: their decision to wear shorts over kilts, the storied history and the academic excellence. Spencer, then an assistant at Northwestern, was also a selling point.

Coykendall remembered walking into Kelly Amonte Hiller’s office and looking up at a photo of Spencer holding a national championship trophy.

“[Like Spencer], I’ve also always worn No. 2,” Coykendall said. “Kelly was like, ‘Oh, look, No. 2. That could be you one day.’”

Coykendall committed to Northwestern on the spot when Amonte Hiller offered her in September 2015. She had yet to attend a day of high school.

Amonte Hiller said it was a draw that Coykendall played multiple sports, as it improved her lacrosse IQ. On top of boys’ and girls’ lacrosse, Coykendall also competed in soccer, bowling and basketball.

Her game combines elements from these sports. She credits playing boys’ lacrosse for teaching her to get her hands away from her body and her shooting style. She embraced an assist-heavy game while playing basketball. An all-state soccer player, Coykendall brought the same high level of competition to her high school lacrosse program. 

She’s definitely, without a doubt, the smartest lacrosse player we’ve ever had here.

Northwestern assistant Scott Hiller

Coaches also credit Coykendall for her selflessness and thoughtfulness.

Trisha Condon, Coykendall’s coach at Spencerport High School, often invited Coykendall to coaches’ meetings to talk drills, how to best defend opponents and what would make the program successful. As Coykendall got older, Condon said her lacrosse knowledge surpassed that of the coaching staff.

“Constantly, she was face guarded,” Condon said. “Instead of looking at it as a negative, she always found a way to show other people how it could benefit them, like, ‘How can we use this to our advantage?’”

Hiller said Coykendall is the first to reach out when someone is struggling outside of lacrosse.

She’s caring and empathetic, he said, noting her close ties to John John, a family friend and Northwestern fan that her sister met through Best Buddies, and Herb, an 87-year-old, longtime Northwestern lacrosse fan.

This caring nature was, in part, developed through fostering animals. Her mother Jennifer Coykendall said their family brings a dog home each year they go to Aruba, fostering it and then getting it adopted. There were always pets in the home — dogs, cats and turtles.

Erin Coykendall even tried to rescue what she thought was a baby opossum hanging on a fence in her backyard during the fall of her junior year at Northwestern. She went to help it down, but quickly realized it wasn’t a baby when it bit her.

Her teammates still send her videos of opossums on campus and bring it up. But that incident wasn’t a deterrent.

“If I had one hobby, it would be rescuing animals, fostering them,” Coykendall said. “I love animals.”

This caring attitude comes across in Coykendall’s assist-heavy game. Her parents encouraged assists when she first began playing, telling her it was part of being a good teammate.

During her freshman year at Northwestern, Coykendall was so well-known for being a feeder — and just that — that defenders wouldn’t slide to her when she had the ball. Amonte Hiller saw a way to capitalize on that. She liked Coykendall’s feeding abilities but told her that she could open up her feeds even more if she scored more and started drawing defenders.

Coykendall improved her scoring as she worked with Northwestern’s staff and her trainer, Brinson, along with support from her family. She watched Kayla Treanor highlight reels at Amonte Hiller’s recommendation, examining how Treanor drew slides and got her head up to find feeds.

Coykendall also spent 2-3 hours with Brinson almost every day during her summers at home, working on seemingly small adjustments with big results.

“He does a really good job slowing down, even if it’s a half-second, where my hands are coming too soon to follow my hips [after shooting],” Coykendall said. “He can find that and be like, ‘OK, you’ve got to drive your back hip before you bring your hands through.’”

The efforts started appearing on the stat sheet during her junior year, when she scored 45 goals after tallying just 21 the previous season. She’s been a serious scoring threat for the Wildcats ever since, highlighted by a 58-goal, 50-assist season in 2023 that earned her Tewaaraton Award finalist honors.

The physical adjustments helped with improvement. But none of it would have been possible without the belief of her coaches, Coykendall said.

“Without confidence, you’re constantly doubting yourself,” Coykendall said. “Their trust in me and the way they’ve instilled confidence in me has allowed me to play free and have fun.”

That confidence is almost palpable when Coykendall plays. Whenever she has the ball near the crease, it feels as though there’s something magical on the horizon — a tricky behind-the-back, a fake out or a heady feed.

Those moments aren’t just another day in the office for Coykendall. It took countless hours on the rebounder, tweaking tiny aspects with Brinson and listening to her coaches’ insights to bring all the pieces together.

In the final days of her college career, it’s do-or-die as Coykendall looks to power the Wildcats to another national championship.