Lacrosse: NU’s defense gears up for Quaker State rivals

Colin Becht

Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller described the necessary traits for strong defensive play in simple terms, adding far greater depth to the phrase “defensive effort.”

“It’s just all about determination,” she said. “Do you want to be able to stop someone?”

Sure, she concedes athleticism and footwork are important, but she said there’s more to it.

“That’s only part of it,” Amonte Hiller said. “The rest is all determination and heart and wanting to play hard and play together as a unit.”

While the No. 2 Wildcats remain undefeated, NU understands the need to hone its defensive effort should a rematch with No. 1 Maryland come in the NCAA Championship in May.

NU will get a chance to do that this weekend, while getting a first-hand look at two of the nation’s strongest defenses, with No. 15 Penn State coming to town on Friday night followed by No. 8 Pennsylvania on Sunday afternoon.

The Nittany Lions and Quakers rank 11th and fourth in the NCAA in goals allowed per game, respectively.

“They play good team defense,” Amonte Hiller said. “They’re both athletic. They play a little more sagged-in style so we’re just going to have to work the ball and find our openings.”

By focusing on tight defense around and inside the fan, the Nittany Lions and Quakers could limit opportunities for the Cats’ attackers to cut into open space around the cage.

“(Penn State and Penn) are typically more defensive teams than offensive,” goaltender Brianne LoManto said. “Yeah, they have a good defense but we have a great offense.”

NU is third in the NCAA in goals per game with 16.2, led by the nation’s points leader, senior attacker Shannon Smith.

While the Cats’ offense has been potent all season, the defense has given Amonte Hiller fits at times. They have allowed double-digit goals four times, most recently in a 12-10 victory over then-No. 3 Duke on Saturday.

In that win, the NU defense demonstrated both what Amonte Hiller would say was an undetermined defense and a resolute defense, surrendering seven first-half goals on an abundance of open looks before cracking down on Duke’s attackers to enable a comeback win.

“Each individual prepares differently mentally,” Amonte Hiller said. “They have to figure out what makes their engine tick and they have to get after it individually and then come together as a group. As a coach you can only do so much.”

Sophomore defender Taylor Thornton said it takes just one of the seven defensive players to be off her game to create opportunities for the opposing offense.

“The whole unit has to be working together,” Thornton said. “If one of us can pull it all together and play all seven of us on the same page, then we’re going to have a great day. But if you have someone who’s missing the slides, it’s going to affect everyone out there.”

Though the Nittany Lions and Quakers may be known for their staunch defenses, if someone in the Cats’ defense isn’t at her best this weekend, both opponents have an offensive arsenal to make NU pay.

Penn State has seven players averaging a point or more per game, led by attacker Jen Steadman and midfielder Laura Lesnick who have combined for 38 goals this season.

Penn, meanwhile, is coming off a season-high 13 goals in its win over Columbia, getting five goals from attacker Erin Brennan.

Thornton agreed with Amonte Hiller that effort was the key intangible to producing solid defensive results.

“If you could take an athletic kid and just get her really gritty for ground balls and just work – it’s all about work ethic on defense,” Thornton said. “I always say, ‘Think offensively on defense,’ like try to control where you want your attacker to go.”

The Cats face the tough task of playing two ranked opponents in three days, limiting the amount of time to prepare for each opponent.

However, Amonte Hiller said scheduling the teams this way was intentional as it provides a simulation of how the NCAA Championship is played. Should the Cats reach the final weekend of the tournament, they would play a semifinal game on May 27, a Friday, followed by the championship contest on May 29, a Sunday.

“We want to prepare in a way that’s going to help us hopefully if we could ever make it to the end game,” Amonte Hiller said. “It’s difficult in terms of preparation but it’s good in terms of getting used to that type of environment.”

Though Penn is the higher-ranked opponent of the two, LoManto said the Cats have focused on the Nittany Lions in practice this week and will worry about the Quakers after Friday’s game.

“Whenever we have Friday-Sunday games, we prepare for our Friday game,” LoManto said. “The teams that look ahead are the teams that don’t always make it.”

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