Lacrosse: All eyes on Northwestern as Wildcats search for 8th national title

Taylor Thornton picks up a ground ball. Thornton, the reigning national player of the year, and the Wildcats are going for their eighth national title in nine years.

Daily file photo by Mackenzie McCluer

Taylor Thornton picks up a ground ball. Thornton, the reigning national player of the year, and the Wildcats are going for their eighth national title in nine years.

Ava Wallace, Assistant Sports Editor

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Earlier this year, Northwestern started playing music over the loudspeaker in the indoor facility during its 9 a.m. practices.

The music is meant to get the team’s energy going early in the morning, but also unavoidably provides a soundtrack to the Wildcats’ practice.

One of the songs playing the Wednesday morning before No. 1 NU hit the road to battle No. 5 North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C., was “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons. It’s a base-thumping, electronica-adjacent pump-up song, with a chorus that goes, “I’m waking up, I feel it in my bones/ Enough to make my systems blow/ Welcome to the new age, to the new age.”

The song gives the early-morning practice an added air of intensity, especially during a drill in which three players charge down field to begin a scrimmage. But the Cats’ rule over women’s college lacrosse is nothing new – one of the following songs, Will.I.Am and Britney Spears’s “Scream and Shout,” is more appropriate for the seven-time National Championship winning Cats.

The song’s mantra summarizes NU’s 2013 season, as well as its half-dozen seasons before that: “All eyes on us.”

‘Redemption down the line’

The Cats are coming off their seventh national title in eight years, the blip in the streak being a loss to Maryland in the 2010 NCAA Championship game. 

But among the team’s East Coast foes, Florida was NU’s Achilles heel more than anyone last season.

After losing twice to the Gators during the 2011-2012 campaign, both junior midfielder and draw-control specialist Alyssa Leonard and senior midfielder Taylor Thornton are looking forward to playing Florida toward the end of April.

NU also faces No. 2 Syracuse, the team they beat in the 2012 NCAA Championship game, toward the end of March.

Despite staying focused on her team’s improvement throughout the season, Leonard is excited for the two opportunities.

“Long term, it’s about the everyday – all season, being able to bring it every day. There’s an opportunity to get better every day, and if we’re not taking advantage of it, someone else might,” Leonard said. “But definitely, with Florida and Syracuse … there’s a little redemption down the line.”

Syracuse and No. 3 Florida are only two of the Cats’ scheduled five top-10 ranked opponents this season. NU will also face No. 7 Duke, No. 8 Virginia and No. 9 Notre Dame in April.

‘A collective approach’  

The reigning NCAA champions take on their demanding schedule armed with a mix of seasoned veterans and fresh talent this season.

The Cats have some big-name returners including Thornton, Leonard and senior attacker Erin Fitzgerald. All three players have been named to the preseason watchlist for the Tewaaraton Award, lacrosse’s Heisman Trophy. This is Thornton’s third straight year on the watch list.

Fitzgerald ended the 2011-2012 season 14th in the country in goals scored with 56 goals in 23 games. Leonard was 19th in the nation in draw controls with 90 draw controls in 22 games.

Leonard, one of NU’s most important players, has had a strong start to the season. She racked up 24 draw controls in the Cats’ first two games, including an NCAA single-game record-tying 15 against Southern California. The midfielder is now 2nd on NU’s career list for draw wins with 205 and tied for 12th all-time in Division I for draw wins. 

Thornton tied the NU single-season record last year with 58 ground balls – she was ranked 27th in the nation. 

After shifting slightly from her role as a more traditional defender to an all-around midfielder, Thornton became one of NU’s most valuable whole-field players. Last season she scored 33 goals.

In her last chance to win the Tewaaraton Trophy, Thornton said she has bought into the team mentality coach Kelly Amonte Hiller emphasizes: one game at a time.

“I honestly haven’t even thought about (the Tewaaraton Trophy),” Thornton said. “When you start reading hype, it’s just hype. I have to go play.”

Despite her veterans’ accomplishments on the field, Amonte Hiller said replacing former team leaders such as attacker Shannon Smith and midfielder Alex Frank will have to be a team effort.

Smith ended last year’s season ranked 5th in the nation for goals scored with 66 in 23 games, and Frank caused 1.57 turnovers per game for the Cats.

“I think it’s a collective approach,” Amonte Hiller said. “We’re using a collective approach rather than saying, ‘Hey you’re going to take the role of Shannon Smith’ – you can’t do that with those types of personalities.”

Still, Amonte Hiller stressed that practice more than individual talent will determine her team’s success this season.

“We’ve got some good people on both ends of the field and in the midfield … so we feel like we have some good components,” she said. “But it doesn’t matter about the components, it’s about the work you put in.”

In addition to the veteran leadership the three members of the watchlist and their classmates, senior midfielders Gabriella Flibotte and Amanda Macaluso, bring to the team, the Cats have new blood to add to the championship-winning squad – namely, a new goalkeeper.

Sophomore goalie Bridget Bianco heads the team this year after three-year starter Brianne LoManto graduated.

Bianco recorded 12 saves against Team USA in an exhibition match during preseason and a career-high 6 saves against Massachusetts in early February, a stat she matched during NU’s loss to North Carolina.

Extended family

After winning her seventh national championship title in spring, Amonte Hiller was recognized for more than her winning record, and when the Cats journeyed to Los Angeles in February to play the University of Southern California, the team saw some familiar faces on the sideline.

Amonte Hiller, who is in her 12th year of coaching at NU, has made a noteworthy mark on the coaching world in women’s college lacrosse.

Amonte Hiller has five former players who are now head Division I coaches, including Lindsey Munday, who was voted captain of Team USA in July and heads Southern California’s program, Angela McMahon, who heads Massachusetts’ program, and Smith, who heads Hofstra University as the youngest head coach in Division I.

Because of Southern California’s familiar staff, both Amonte Hiller and her players said being able to play in Los Angeles was a treat.

“It’s amazing,” Amonte Hiller said. “It’s something that I’m definitely proud of – to know that I’m inspiring people to want to stay in the game and provide an experience for a new generation of student athletes. It’s really fun to watch them, cheer for them and in some cases, go up against them.”

With this weekend’s win over Vanderbilt, Amonte Hiller is one game away from 200 wins with a 199-31 career record. She is the winningest coach in NCAA Tournament history for lacrosse.

The season so far

The Cats (3-1, 1-0 ALC) steamrolled their way through games against N0.14 Massachusetts and Southern California in early February, and beat Vanderbilt, NU’s first American Lacrosse Conference opponent in the 2013 campaign, 15-8 two weeks later.

The one blemish on the team’s young season is an 11-8 loss against No. 5 North Carolina (3-1) on Friday. In the Cats’ first loss since their 14-7 fall to Florida last May, the Tar Heels beat NU in some aspects Amonte Hiller has deemed crucial to her team’s success this season.

Despite Leonard winning 16 draws compared to North Carolina’s 5, the Tar Heels bested the Cats in ground balls – North Carolina grabbed 18 while NU was only able to scoop up 12.

Winning 50-50 ground balls and defensive discipline are some of the “little things” Amonte Hiller said are the keys to a successful campaign this year.

Leonard is personally concerned with winning draws, but also mentioned an aspect of the game that she said needs to develop both on and off the field.

“It’s important for me, as a rule, that we’re getting good percentages on the circle,” Leonard said. “I just want to make sure that I’m a threat offensively and a motivator to the girls around me, making sure that we have good vibes on the field.”

Amonte Hiller also mentioned these “good vibes” as a noticeable difference during the Team USA game, the team’s second in as many years.

Despite the losing score, Amonte Hiller said her team was noticeably more competitive and playing with a better mentality.

Thornton describes the good vibes for which the team is reaching as not getting complacent – Amonte Hiller brought up the mentality after NU’s loss to North Carolina.

“They just wanted it more,” she said as an explanation of the loss, and specifically North Carolina’s 7-1 run in the game’s first half.

But when talking mentality in general throughout the season, Amonte Hiller again mentions taking things one day at a time.

“We focus on the game that we’re going to be playing,” Amonte Hiller said. “Even in the practice setting, we’re focused on the practice. We really want to try and take advantage of every day, because if you look ahead, you lose your opportunity to take advantage of today … If you look past one opponent, you’re going to be in trouble.”

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