Lacrosse: Undefeated Cats eye improvements

Colin Becht

Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller was not just using coach-speak when she said No. 2 Northwestern’s overpowering offense was balanced.

Junior attacker Shannon Smith does indeed lead the nation with 60 points, yet she is one of seven NU players with double-digit points.

“The good thing about our offense is that we’ve had contributions from everyone, and each game it’s different people scoring, assisting, making big plays for us,” Amonte Hiller said. “We’re pretty versatile this year, whereas I think we were a little more one-dimensional last year.”

While the Wildcats (9-0) had two of the top three in points in the nation last year, then-seniors Katrina Dowd and Danielle Spencer along with Smith combined for nearly 60 percent of NU’s points. This year Smith accounts for less than 30 percent of the Cats’ points.

“Shannon is doing a nice job leading the group, but it’s really anyone can step up at any time,” Amonte Hiller said.

The ability of other players to step up has paid off for Smith’s stats as well. While Smith scored more than two goals for each of her assists last season, she has scored 1.3 goals per assist this year.

“Offensively, we’re working really well together,” Smith said. “(My teammates) are the ones catching my passes and opening up the spots for me. This year I just really focused on my finishing inside and really making some good passes.”

With a plethora of offensive weapons, the Cats have had no trouble finding the back of the net and are scoring more than 16 goals per game, second best in the NCAA. That high-powered offense has led NU to an undefeated start to the season with seven wins over ranked opponents.

Over Spring Break, NU knocked off then-No. 16 William and Mary, then-No. 11 Syracuse and then-No. 20 Massachusetts by a combined score of 51-26.

Freshman attacker Kelly Rich went on a hot streak to add a new face to NU’s arsenal, scoring eight goals over a three-game span from the Cats’ 19-8 win over California on March 11 to their 16-11 victory over Syracuse last Wednesday.

Sophomore midfielder Erin Fitzgerald rocked the cage in NU’s most recent game, a 17-7 win over Massachusetts on Saturday, scoring a career-best five goals.

The Cats have maximized their opportunities to score by controlling 68 percent of their draws this season. NU leads the nation with 18.56 draws controlled per game.

“It’s pivotal to win the draw,” Amonte Hiller said. “We’ve been working pretty hard at that.”

Freshman midfielder Alyssa Leonard has greatly contributed to the Cats’ success off the draw, leading the team with 38 draws controlled. Junior midfielder Alex Frank has won 33.

The Cats dominated Massachusetts 24-2 on the draw, led by seven draws controlled from Leonard. NU went a perfect 13-for-13 on draws in the second half, allowing the Cats to maintain possession of the ball and effectively thwart any attempt at a comeback from the Minutewomen.

Despite NU’s many successes in the first half of the regular season, Amonte Hiller said the Cats are far from reaching their peak, emphasizing necessary improvements to limit turnovers and improve defensively.

“They’ve been kind of up and down this season. We’re not satisfied at all,” Amonte Hiller said of NU’s defense. “Our midfielders really need to commit to the defense.”

Senior midfielder Colleen Magarity said she knows the Cats’ defensive effort isn’t at its best yet, but they have identified what needs to be improved.

“Defense is all about pressuring the ball, and if you step back your pressure a little bit, it can change things,” Magarity said. “We just need to make sure we’re pressuring the ball all the time and we’re backing each other up.”

NU has allowed 8.89 goals per game, far higher than No. 1 Maryland’s 6.30 goals allowed average.

“We have a lot of potential,” Magarity said. “It’s exciting that we’re not even close to meeting that potential yet.”

Amonte Hiller also said the Cats needed to cut down on turnovers to reach their full capability after committing 17 against Massachusetts and 13 against Syracuse. While NU has dominated its opponents in nearly all aspects of the stat sheet, the Cats have committed 128 turnovers to their opponents’ combined 122. Opponents have caused just 69 of NU’s turnovers, demonstrating a worrying frequency of unforced errors.

“You’re always going to have some, but I think that it’s the silly, mistimed turnovers when you come out of a timeout,” Amonte Hiller said. “We’re up and we want to get up more, and we’re having mental lapses.”

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