“Play like a senior.”
That’s what Michigan coach Hannah Nielsen told freshman attacker Jill Smith before Sunday’s second-round NCAA Tournament game against No. 4 seed Northwestern.
And that’s exactly what Smith did.
After scoring a hat trick in Michigan’s first-round win over Notre Dame, Smith returned to the field even stronger against the Wildcats, netting four goals and playing a crucial role in keeping the Wolverines in a narrow 15-12 loss.
“She may be a freshman but she definitely doesn’t act like one,” graduate goalkeeper Arielle Weissman said. “Which is the biggest strength I think she has.”
After a scoreless first quarter for the Wolverines that left them trailing 5-0, Smith provided a much-needed spark with a hat trick in the second frame — including two straight goals to kickstart Michigan’s offense.
Smith finally got the Wolverines on the board with her first goal, a free position shot early in the second period. Not long after breaking the ice, she bounced the ball through Northwestern goalkeeper Cara Nugent’s legs to add another point for Michigan. She completed the hat trick with another free position score to close out the first half, providing three of the Wolverines’ five team goals heading into the break.
“Not only (did she score) four goals, but (she scored) when we really, really needed them,” Nielsen said. “She stepped up.”
Smith’s fourth goal was the last for Michigan, a behind-the-back underhand shot that brought the Wolverines within two goals with just over six minutes left to play. Michigan had a few chances to cut the lead even further but were unable to capitalize.
“From a coach’s perspective, (the loss) today really hurts,” Nielsen said. “But when you look toward the future, to think about having (Smith) down there, I’m excited for the future of the program.”
Although her success on the attack suggests a high level of familiarity with the position, Smith actually spent most of her rookie year at midfield. The coaching staff moved her to attack about two-thirds of the way through the season in an effort to generate a spark on offense with a player who could emanate confidence and play hard. That change proved advantageous based on Smith’s standout performances in the postseason.
On top of that, Smith’s impact is not only recognized on the field.
“On and off the field, Jill is one of the girls we look to for the heartbeat of this team,” Weissman said. “She looks up to the upperclassmen because she wants to command their respect and she’s earned it at this point as you can see out on the field, as well as she rallies everybody around her.”
As a team, the Wolverines were ultimately unable to contain the Wildcats’ high-powered offense and overcome an early deficit on Sunday. With the loss, Michigan’s NCAA Tournament campaign — and its season — is over. But the disappointment of a season-ending loss does not negate the bright spots, like Smith’s play, that emerged in the process.
“She’s gonna have an incredible career here at Michigan, “ Weissman said. “And this is just the beginning of it.”
After playing like a senior in her first year on college lacrosse’s biggest stage, Smith’s performance suggests that her dominance will only continue.