Women’s Lacrosse: Beginning of a new streak

Jimmy Mitchell

Northwestern’s reign over the American Lacrosse Conference continued this weekend.

The Wildcats, who have won 23 consecutive conference games, defeated Penn State and eighth-ranked Vanderbilt to claim their sixth consecutive ALC tournament title.

After suffering their first loss of the 2008 season at the hands of now-No. 1 Penn a week ago, the No. 2 Cats returned to their winning ways with a 15-7 win over the Nittany Lions in the semifinals Saturday and a 14-3 thrashing of the Commodores Sunday.

NU’s dominance this weekend at Lakeside Field guaranteed the Cats a spot in the upcoming NCAA tournament, where they will attempt to capture their fourth straight national championship.

Sunday’s victory over Vanderbilt for the ALC title was “the most important” game of the season for the Cats, junior attacker Hilary Bowen said.

“This was our biggest challenge,” she said. “The fact that we won gets us a guaranteed seed in the tournament, and that’s what most important to us right now. It’s great to see that we can come out here and play together and play as a team and win the way we did.”

In both games, the Cats’ offense was able to excel without the help of one of its greatest threats. Sophomore attacker Danielle Spencer, one of NU’s leading scorers, notched only two goals Saturday, as Penn State double- and triple-teamed her whenever she had possession.

Spencer had more success Sunday, recording three early scores before leaving the field with a sore muscle in the middle of the first half. As a precaution, she remained on the sideline for the rest of the game.

In Spencer’s absence, Bowen led the offensive attack for NU with a game-high four goals. But it was Nielsen who emerged as the real star of the tournament.

The ALC Player of the Year was also named MVP of the tournament following her two-day, 16-point performance.

And with a quick pass to Dowd in the second half, Nielsen recorded her 129th career assist and became the all-time assist leader at NU.

“She’s definitely been our QB and just steps up under pressure, and that’s what you need from leaders,” Hiller said. “You need leaders that aren’t afraid when the chips are down to really take over.”

While Nielsen was the driving force behind the Cats’ victories, NU’s success stemmed from team play, a factor Amonte Hiller stressed in the aftermath of the loss to Penn. In that game, only three Cats were able to record goals, as the Quakers effectively neutralized NU’s high-powered offense.

“A big part of the Penn game was we didn’t get contributions from everyone,” Amonte Hiller said after Saturday’s victory. “We need to have everyone play hard and everyone get after it. That’s really what we focused on in practice this week.”

The Cats’ diverse offense was on display early Saturday, as goals from Bowen, sophomore attacker Katrina Dowd and junior midfielder Hannah Nielsen gave the team a three-point advantage just seven minutes into the game.

NU and Penn State then exchanged a pair of goals in a relatively low-scoring first half. It looked like the Cats would finish the period holding a 4-2 advantage, but a crucial NU turnover and a score from Penn State attacker Mary LeNoir with three seconds remaining cut the halftime score to 4-3.

“I was actually really positive going into the halftime,” Amonte Hiller said. “I felt like we were doing the things that we needed to do, and if we just turned up the aggressiveness just a touch offensively, then things would fall our way.”

After the Nittany Lions evened the score at four early in the second half, the Cats began to display that aggressiveness. After recovering a loose ball deep in NU’s territory, freshman Brooke Matthewswent the length of the field, outrunning Penn State defenders and putting the Cats ahead with a goal.

The play was a turning point for the team, as NU went on to outscore Penn State 10-3 for the remainder of the game.

“People like Brooke step up, they always have great games,” Amonte Hiller said. “She did a great job today, and she showed how explosive and dynamic she is.”

Following Matthews’ goal, the Cats did not trail for the rest of the weekend and outscored their opponents by a combined 18 points.

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