Lacrosse: Wildcats sweep aside Fighting Irish to advance to quarterfinals

Dan Ryan

If there were any lingering questions about a possible ALC Championship hangover for the Wildcats, they answered them in short order Saturday.

Northwestern defeated Notre Dame 12-7 in the opening round of the NCAA Championships at Lakeside Field, bouncing back from its loss to Florida a week before in the ALC Championship and advancing to the second round of play.

For Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller, the notable difference was how NU dominated draw controls, winning 15 of 20 chances.

“We worked harder,” Amonte Hiller said. “We worked at it every single day. We made a commitment to it, and we need to continue to do that this week. For us, it was not a good thing to be beat 18-5 (in draw controls against Florida). That’s never happened before in our program. I took that personally. Many of our people on our team took that personally and went out and battled like it was the end of their life every single draw.”

It was not draw controls but turnovers that hampered the Cats in the opening period.

Despite maintaining possession for the majority of the half, NU turned the ball over 11 times compared to their 13 shot attempts in the frame. The Fighting Irish battled back and forth with the Cats to a 2-2 tie late into the period before a small NU run opened a 5-3 lead entering the intermission.

Junior midfielder Erin Fitzgerald played a large role in the lead, scoring two of her three goals in the first half while senior attacker Shannon Smith struggled with heavy defensive pressure.

“Shannon had the ball behind (the goal), and she was getting a lot of pressure on her,” Fitzgerald said. “There was just a lot of movement on attack. Everyone was drawing defenders, and I happened to be the open girl on the cuts.”

NU kept the momentum from Fitzgerald’s goals going into the second half and opened up a 9-5 lead midway through the period. Helped by excellent defensive pressure and draw control dominance from sophomore Alyssa Leonard, who recorded 8 on the day, the Cats kept the Fighting Irish at a distance for most of the second half.

Leonard, whose leaping ability was compared to that of Michael Jordan in the Big Ten Network broadcast, played a large role in the four-goal margin.

“It’s all about quickness up there,” Leonard said. “They had a couple of different people drawing, all very good. The ball just happened to be going up, and I was just looking for the ball every time after that whistle blew. Wherever that ball was, that’s where I was going.”

Notre Dame was able to close the deficit to three with five minutes and 18 seconds left in regulation on a goal by Betsy Mastropieri, but time was already working against the Fighting Irish.

In the waning minutes of the game, Notre Dame Coach Christine Halfpenny chose to make goalkeeper Ellie Hilling an extra defender and leave the goal unguarded, but the move backfired as NU was able to force key turnovers and score two fast goals of their own, icing the game.

Junior midfielder Taylor Thornton said the defense played a big part of the Cats’ superior second half play.

“We were able to get out there and keep putting pressure on them,” Thornton said. “They got rattled, and we were sliding better in the second half. And that really translated.”

NU will host Duke on Saturday night. The Cats dispatched the Blue Devils 13-5 on Feb. 19 in Durham, N.C.

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