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Northwestern's Erin Coykendall.

Northwestern Begins Title Defense With 18-15 Win Over Syracuse

February 10, 2024
Charlotte Varnes
Sophia Scheller

EVANSTON, Ill. — Can anyone stop Northwestern? The answer, as of Saturday’s 2024 season opener, is still no.

No opponent has succeeded since Syracuse in the 2023 season opener. Given another opportunity to best the Wildcats, the fifth-ranked Orange were unable to recreate the magic despite a late comeback attempt in an 18-15 win for No. 1 Northwestern at Ryan Fieldhouse.

“We welcome the challenge,” defender Kendall Halpern said. “It’s really good for us. [We’d] rather that than go out, win by 10. We’d rather that happen now than in 15 games from now.”

The Wildcats looked every bit the team they were in 2023: a rare combination of composed and aggressive. Madison Taylor struck first, easily maneuvering past Syracuse’s defense just 22 seconds into the game. The first quarter was all purple, as the Wildcats dominated the draw 8-3 and finished with an 8-2 lead.

Northwestern's 2023 championship banner.
Northwestern raised its 2023 NCAA championship banner in Ryan Fieldhouse before Saturday's season opener.
Sophia Scheller

Erin Coykendall, a 2023 Tewaaraton Award finalist, was key to Northwestern’s early dominance. She excelled from several angles, including ripping a shot from the top of the eight-meter arc and winding up a low-angled shot within the eight. She finished with four goals and four assists, tied with Taylor as Northwestern’s leading goal-scorers.

Coykendall credited good movement and cutting as key to the offensive success.

“Early [playing] that zone, we were finding those cuts,” Coykendall said. “People were being pretty selfless.”

The draw proved crucial throughout. Northwestern, one of the country’s top units in 2023, was dominant against Syracuse, winning 24 of 37 draws. Kate Mashewske, who was out with injury for the majority of 2023 and returned in January, won three draws in her first game back for Syracuse.

The game, ultimately, was won in the first quarter. Syracuse was relentless as the game wore on, but the Orange leaned into those qualities too late to make up the early six-goal gap.

The Orange outscored Northwestern 4-3 in the second quarter and posted an even 4-4 third quarter. Much of this success came from slowing the pace from the second quarter onward, passing the ball and letting senior attacker Emma Ward take control behind the cage.

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But Northwestern seemingly always responded to the Orange’s punches. Their defense was especially scrappy. Perhaps one of the unit’s strongest moments was when it was down multiple women on a free position shot in the second quarter, yet Jane Hansen and Sammy White’s sharp play prevented the Orange from scoring.

“[The] seven of us together were moving really cohesively,” Halpern said. “We’re working really hard on that.”

Their efforts, along with a balanced offensive performance, led the Wildcats to an 11-6 halftime lead. Syracuse had a lot of belief throughout the game despite a difficult first quarter, coach Kayla Treanor said. The Orange stuck with it and made adjustments, and she thought they could have narrowed the lead to two at the end of the game.

Olivia Adamson and Ward were key cogs in Syracuse’s fourth-quarter comeback attempt. Their primary draw specialist after Mashewske’s injury last year, Adamson appears to have taken on a bigger attacking role after the graduations of Meaghan Tyrrell and Megan Carney. She tallied six goals, including three in the fourth quarter.

Ward was dynamic, scoring two late goals to narrow Northwestern’s lead to one with just over eight minutes left. This came as Syracuse won five draws to Northwestern’s four in the fourth quarter — pivotal to narrowing the lead, but too late for a successful comeback.

Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said those draws were how Syracuse capitalized later on, but she felt the Wildcats had a good draw day in general. Despite Syracuse’s fourth-quarter rally, the end was in sight when Amonte Hiller called a timeout with a 16-14 lead with a little more than four minutes left.

The Wildcats launched into motion after the timeout, as Taylor passed to Izzy Scane as she drove in to score. Scane, who had a relatively quiet day with three goals and an assist, chimed in just in time.

The narrow 18-15 final is just how the Wildcats wanted the game scripted.

“I think it was good for us that Syracuse never went away,” Amonte Hiller said. “They really fought hard. They were able to make adjustments. There’s a lot of good learning for us.”