Lacrosse: Northwestern going for perfect ALC season with tournament crown

Brian Chappatta

Before No. 2 Northwestern sets out to defend its five consecutive National Championships, the Wildcats must prove they are kings of their conference for the sixth straight year.

NU defeated the five other members of the ALC during the regular season, including a 27-9 victory over No. 10 Vanderbilt-the second seed in the tournament. The closest call for the Cats came against No. 20 Johns Hopkins, when they won 11-7 after trailing 3-2 at the half.

Though NU blew by its conference foes during the regular season, the players understand the implications of a do-or-die situation in the postseason.

“We came out on fire (against Vanderbilt) and we have to know that Vanderbilt is going to be mad and pissed off and they’re going to come out and give us a better game,” sophomore attacker Shannon Smith said. “We have to keep upping our level and we have to play better than we did against them in the regular season.”

Smith knows something about stepping up in the ALC tournament. In last year’s ALC championship game, the then-freshman netted a career-high four goals, leading NU in scoring as it defeated Penn State to capture its fifth ALC championship.

This year’s freshman class has shown similar signs of brilliance. Defender Taylor Thornton earned ALC Rookie of the Week honors for her performances against No. 4 Virginia and Florida. She received the distinction earlier in the season as well as ALC Defensive Player of the Week in week six of the season.

Offensively, the freshman trio of Ali Cassera, Erin Fitzgerald and Amanda Macaluso made their names known against Vanderbilt, when Fitzgerald scored four goals, Cassera notched three and Macaluso found the back of the net twice. On Senior Day against Florida, the three once again demonstrated the power of NU’s youth, combining for five goals off the bench.

Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller, who was named ALC Coach of the Year on Tuesday, has shown willingness to play her freshmen in critical moments. In the final seconds of regulation against Virginia, Fitzgerald took the potential game-winning shot.

“At this point in the season for the freshmen, this is really when they start to come on, and they start to understand what it takes to be successful at this level,” Amonte Hiller said. “We’re definitely going to be looking for them. We need everyone to be successful. It can’t just be one or two people.”

One player the Cats usually turn to in tight spots is senior attacker Katrina Dowd. The ALC Player of the Year recorded seven scores in the loss to then No. 2 North Carolina and put up four against Virginia-including the first two overtime goals.

Playing in three previous postseasons has taught Dowd that do-or-die scenarios will incite other teams to fight back harder. So it’s up to the Cats to come at them with equal resolve.

“Every team from here on out, their backs are against the wall,” Dowd said. “It’s about them extending their season and they are going to give us their best effort. It only makes it that much more intense, and we have to not only match their intensity but come out with fire and a purpose.”

NU has been searching for consistency as of late. Its loss to North Carolina was followed by a dismantling of Vanderbilt. The Cats snuck by the Cavaliers in overtime and then crushed the Gators.

Amonte Hiller attributes the up-and-down play to varying intensity on offense and emphasized the importance of fundamentals in practice this week.

“Sometimes, like against Vanderbilt, things were coming easy, but they were coming easy because we were working at it,” Amonte Hiller said. “Sometimes when you have an offensive output like that, you tend to have a letdown because you just cut corners and you think things will literally come easy. We need to get back to working so things look like they’re coming easy-but offense never comes easy.”

The ALC tournament features four ranked teams. That’s tough competition, but not nearly the same level as the NCAA tournament. Dowd said this weekend’s games should help the Cats “piece everything together” from the regular season heading into the NCAA tournament.

For Amonte Hiller, there is still time for the team to improve. But taking a step back is unacceptable.

“They have to show growth,” Amonte Hiller said. “Every time we step on the field, that’s what it’s about, showing growth. We don’t have to be exactly where we want to be at the end, but we have to be better, better than we were yesterday.”

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