SI College Athlete of the Year nominee: Northwestern's Taylor Thornton
Seven years ago, after spending the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend barbequing with his family at their Dallas home, Steve Thornton plopped down in front of the TV to watch the Northwestern women's lacrosse team play Virginia for the NCAA title. As one Wildcats player after another zoomed from end line to end line and wore down the Cavaliers on the way to a second straight championship, a mesmerized Thornton turned to his daughter and said, "Taylor, Northwestern would be a great fit for you."
"Yeah, right," Taylor remembers saying while rolling her eyes. She was only 15 -- an age when eye-rolling is all but reflexive -- and a freshman on the varsity at The Hockaday School. It had only been two seasons since she had abandoned soccer, basketball and tennis to play on a girls lacrosse team started by a group of Dallas-area dads -- nearly all of them without a background in the game. And even as she played, she hardly envisioned herself becoming the MVP of a college powerhouse.
But Steve did. With dad pushing her, along with mom Janice and older brother Blakely, Taylor not only emerged as a perennial all-star and a two-time state champion at Hockaday, but also a blue-chip college prospect in an area of the country considerably farther south and west of the traditional hotbeds along the Atlantic coast. That she was also black made her seem to college recruiters like a Williams sister who -- to their great luck -- had picked up the wrong stick. Wildcats coach Kelly Amonte Hiller, who has won seven NCAA titles in the last eight seasons with non-traditional recruits, just had to have Thornton in Evanston. "We were able to convince her that we could mold her into a great, great college player," Amonte Hiller said.
Through a lot of hard work, the 5-foot-9 Thornton molded herself into one of the game's best end-to-end players. She established herself as a stopper, running away with defensive player of the year honors as a sophomore in 2011. The next year, she reinvented herself as a scoring whiz in the midfield with 33 goals on an eye-popping 61.1 percent shooting. Her last goal was the game-winner against Syracuse in the national final. Thornton was named 2012 National Player of the Year.
Although her offensive stats have dipped in 2013 (24 goals on 50.0 percent shooting), Thornton is still a defensive menace. Her solid play is a big reason why the No. 4-ranked Wildcats (17-2) are in position to win an eighth national championship when the NCAA tournament begins on May 12.
Steve Thornton would love to spend another Memorial Day Saturday on the other side of the TV screen, surrounded by loved ones as his daughter raises an NCAA championship plaque for the third straight time. But even if the Wildcats don't make the finals Thornton's achievements are still stunning. A three-time all-conference academic performer, Thornton will graduate with a communications degree this spring.
In the end, Thornton concedes, father knew best. That she can say it without rolling her eyes is a sign of how far she's come. "It's just pretty incredible when you look back at it, just the time and the energy that I put into this," she said. "The accomplishments that I've been able to have with this program are really something special."