Global Warming

Northwestern attacker and Australia native Hannah Nielsen heats up at her new position

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  • Full Tournament Bracket

    May 6, 2007

    By Steve Silver

    Special to CSTV.com

     

    Standing at midfield on a stifling hot day in Annapolis, Md. in 2005, Hannah Nielsen froze as she watched one of the world's greatest lacrosse talents, Kelly Amonte Hiller, scoop the ball into her stick.

     

    Nielsen knew what was going to happen next. She had watched and idolized highlight reels, pictures and stories of Amonte Hiller's dominating performances while helping the University of Maryland build a dynasty of seven consecutive NCAA championships.

     

    She knew if the ball was in Amonte Hiller's stick then it would most likely find the back of the net.


     

     

     

    But Nielsen quickly dispelled any sympathetic feelings for one of her childhood idols and sprung to action.

     

    This was the 2005 International Federation of Women's Lacrosse Association's World Cup and Nielsen's underdog Australian team was clinging to a small lead over Amonte Hiller's American team in front of a crowd of 6,000 people.

     

    Nielsen sprinted after Amonte Hiller, but missed her stick on the check and drew a yellow card for hitting Amonte Hiller on the head.

     

    "Yeah, we don't really talk about that a lot," said Nielsen, who scored a second half goal as Australia won its first World Cup title since 1986, routing the U.S. 14-7.

     

    Despite the penalty and the game's outcome, a bond was formed between the then-17-year-old Nielsen and Amonte Hiller, who happened to be converting a club lacrosse team into a national powerhouse at Northwestern University.

     

    Amonte Hiller then convinced Nielsen to visit the Evanston campus; and although Nielsen said she had dreamed of playing for Maryland since seventh grade, the young Australian chose NU right after it won its first NCAA title.

     

    "That is the thing, most top kids from Australia go to Maryland or maybe even Loyola, but we sought after (Nielsen) from the beginning and we were aggressive," Amonte Hiller said. "She was very open to the opportunity to come here. And with us having success in that year, she saw that I could turn a new program into a champion. I also think the education here is really important to her. Going back to Australia, a Northwestern degree means something. The worldwide credibility makes a difference."

     

    Nielsen wasted no time making an immediate impact after joining the Wildcats.

     

    In her freshman season, Nielsen started all 21 games at midfield and notched 14 goals and nine assists as the `Cats successfully defended their NCAA title. Nielsen also displayed her speed and grittiness while digging 34 ground balls and 30 draw controls.

     

    She quickly adjusted to playing lacrosse at the collegiate level, but admitted that attending classes in the U.S. was not so easy.

     

    "In general, Australia is a lot more laid back than America," said the Adelaide native, who recently transferred into the School of Education and Social Policy at NU to major in Human Development and Psychological Services.

     

    "The education system in Australia is very different and back home we definitely don't have the big time college sports that you have here. So it's definitely different to be a student athlete. At home if you are student, you are a student. And that's all you are. You play your sports outside of school and it has nothing to do with college at all."

     

    But Nielsen said she always realized the significance of NCAA competition in the U.S., which is why she wanted to take on a larger role in NU's quest for a three-peat this season.

     

    After showing off her passing skills while playing the "quarterback" attack position behind the net during a Fall scrimmage, Nielsen approached Amonte Hiller about switching from midfield to attack and the coach obliged.

     

    "I definitely feel a lot more comfortable back there," Nielsen said about her new attacking position. "Back at home, I used to play behind the net a lot, but those positions were filled last year. I love playing behind the net. It's just a lot of fun being able to stand behind there and see the whole field."

     

    Amonte Hiller's gamble to move an accomplished midfielder to attack has certainly paid off.

     

    In the attacking slot this season, Nielsen leads the team with 106 points from 45 goals and 61 assists. Her assists tally set an NU single season record and places her second on the NCAA's all-time single season assists list.

     

    She is also second in the nation with an average of 3.25 assists per game - a statistic that has earned her the nickname of "Field General."

     

    "It's so fun playing with Hannah, she just sees the field so well," said senior All-American Kristen Kjellman, who is the reigning Tewaaraton Trophy winner. "She is a great feeder. I love cutting for her in front of the net. She'll find you no matter what. It's awesome that she has really stepped up and she is a leader on the attack."

     

    That innate leadership ability will not only play a large role in NU's quest for its third consecutive NCAA championship, but it also stabilizes the program's future.

     

    Along with Nielsen, NU's top-ranked offense is powered by two other sophomores, Hilary Bowen and Meredith Frank. The young trio accounts for more than half of all of the `Cats' points this season.

     

    "If you didn't know (Nielsen), you would probably think she is a senior, but she is a sophomore and very young," Amonte Hiller said about Nielsen, who will not turn 20 until November of her Junior year. "Back in Australia, she plays with a lot of older players, so she is used to playing with older players and also, stepping up and being a leader over some of the older players. For us, that is huge. If you have a younger player that is not afraid to step up and be a leader, it adds a lot more to the table."

     

    Although Amonte Hiller said she envisions Nielsen developing into one of the best players in the nation, Nielsen almost never picked up a lacrosse stick.

     

    "She grew up always playing lots of sports, but never lacrosse," said Nielsen's father, Brian. "She played tennis, took life saving classes, surfed, played cricket and even some footie with the boys... I always thought she might have a special talent in something, because when she was five, she got chosen to be on an elite gymnastics team. That certainly built up her strength and speed."

     

    Nielsen only took up lacrosse when she was 12-years-old, thanks to her tennis doubles partner.

     

    That's Amy Hallion, who now plays lacrosse at Stony Brook. She invited Nielsen to a pick-up lacrosse game one day and Nielsen fell in love with the sport.

     

    "Australia has a very small lacrosse crowd," said Nielsen, who will compete on the nation's under-19 team in international competition this summer. "I think maybe less than 1,000 people play lacrosse there, but everyone who plays loves it and is very passionate, which is why I think Australia lacrosse produces great players."

     

    Despite her new leadership role and her unbridled intensity on the field, Nielsen is the epitome of her favorite phrase, "No worries, mate."

     

    A laid back, surfer girl who is both the instigator and butt of many jokes and pranks.

     

    "We have a lot of fun together," said Bowen, Nielsen's attacking partner behind the net. "We always crack jokes about her being an Aussie. She is just the one to always bring the team together, she always get us to have fun. We all make fun of her for her accent like, `Put another shrimp on the barbie.' And she comes back with all these Australian comebacks with all this jive I don't even understand."

     

    Nielsen's thick Australian accent is not only subject to many imitation attempts, but it has quickly become the voice of the `Cats. She once again proved why she is the future of the NU squad with a four goal and four assist performance in the `Cats 22-6 rout of No. 8 Johns Hopkins in the American Lacrosse Conference title game on Sunday.

     

    The ALC certainly recognized her supreme talent, naming her the tournament MVP for netting seven goals and nine assists in NU's two tournament games.

     

    "She can pinpoint passes that I don't even know where they come from and I'm left standing there wondering, `How did she get it in there?' Bowen said. "But I love playing with her and I'm so glad I have two more years behind the net with her."

     

    Nielsen's opponents, however, might not be so thrilled.