Magarity, NU find path back to the top

EVANSTON, Ill. -- The bar set for Northwestern senior lacrosse captain Colleen Magarity is almost unfair.

Six of the Wildcats' last senior classes have played in the NCAA women's lacrosse championship game. Five of them won the national title. Two teams went undefeated. Three teams lost just one game. One team fell twice.

There's little room for error to meet those standards. That's why when the Wildcats lost back-to-back games earlier this season for the first time since 2003, Magarity quickly leaped to hit the panic button.

"We have the target on our backs all the time," Magarity said. "People love that we lost [twice this season.] They love to see us lose. I think it fuels us to work harder and prove them wrong."

Since the Wildcats dropped consecutive games to Florida and Johns Hopkins in mid-April, the Wildcats have taken advantage of that fuel and responded with three consecutive wins over ranked opponents. Now with a 15-2 record and a top-three national ranking, Northwestern is ready for another national championship push.

On their return path to winning, Northwestern has made some on-the-field adjustments, but Magarity and her fellow seniors have also stepped up their leadership.

"I had to take some control," Magarity said. "Losing isn't fun. With my teammates, we came together, and we really realized there needed to be change, and the change needed to happen now. We don't have a year to come back from this.

"We're overcoming adversity. We had back-to-back losses. It's my team. I need to take leadership of it with my other captains and seniors."

One of the team's greatest emphases in recent weeks has been playing together. While Northwestern does possess some very talented individual players, especially junior Shannon Smith, who is among the nation's leaders in goals and assists, its offense has struggled at times this season.

The Wildcats have lost only five games in the last seven years when Northwestern and its opponent both have scored in double figures. Two of those defeats were this season, losing to Florida 13-11 and Johns Hopkins 12-11. Goals haven't come as easy to this team as they have in the past, and the Wildcats have worked to fix that.

"We were trying to get things done so quickly on offense," Magarity said. "We have to work the ball around and wear down the defense. We just wanted to do this, do that, make the big play.

"Every team is different. What we've learned is you can't rely on past team's successes. It's a completely different year and a completely different team. You also can't rely on people's individual talent just thinking they're going to win us the game. We have to do it together. It's a team sport."

In looking to make the offense more team-oriented, Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte Hiller moved Magarity up from the defensive end to the offensive one. Magarity was an offensive star in high school in Pennsylvania, so she had experience there. More importantly, Amonte Hiller thought Magarity would bring a calm presence to the team's attack.

"We just felt we needed a little bit of leadership in that area," Amonte Hiller said. "She has great leadership skills and is very steady. She does the little things that no one wants to do all over the field, just the small things like the ground balls, the communication, that make a big difference."

Magarity welcomed the shift. Who doesn't like to score goals and dish off assists? Magarity also saw it as an opportunity to pretend she was a point guard on the basketball floor again. She earned all-conference honors twice at the position in high school.

"I've always loved basketball," Magarity said. "Basketball is pretty much my favorite sport other than lacrosse. Shannon Smith knows I see the field like I did when I played point guard. She was excited to see me there. I'm always looking for that backdoor play.

"I think a pick goes a long way. It's just engrained in my head -- [John] Stockton-to-[Karl] Malone all day. If you execute the pick and roll, no one can stop it."

Magarity put her offensive tools to use against Stanford on Northwestern's Senior Day on April 24. With the game tied 4-4, Magarity made a hard cut toward the net, catching her defender off guard. Teammate Kat DeRonda hit Magarity with the ball as she approached the net, and Magarity quickly fired the ball in the net's left corner to put the Wildcats ahead.

It was Magarity's second goal of her Northwestern career, and her first since scoring as a freshman on April 20, 2008.

"I was ready to score," Magarity said. "I wanted to score. It was a fun day."

Magarity and her fellow seniors didn't shed a tear on the day, though. They don't believe it's anywhere near the end of the line for them.

"When it came down to it, it was another game," Magarity said. "It's not my last game ever. I think we're getting to the fun part of the season. This is why we play."