Lacrosse: After close victories, Wildcats take on streaking Nittany Lions, Cavaliers

Northwestern attacker Erin Fitzgerald leads the Wildcats with 32 goals this year. The senior has taken 70 shots this season with 54 of them going on goal.

Daily file photo by Jim An

Northwestern attacker Erin Fitzgerald leads the Wildcats with 32 goals this year. The senior has taken 70 shots this season with 54 of them going on goal.

Ava Wallace, Assistant Sports Editor

To kick off the last month of regular season play, No. 4 Northwestern (9-1, 3-0 ALC) plays under the lights at Lakeside Field on Friday against No. 8 Penn State (7-3, 2-0), the team that toppled No. 2 Florida in its most recent contest.

The Wildcats will then hit the road to battle No. 11 Virginia (7-6), which boasts sophomore transfer Casey Bocklet. She played her freshman year at NU and has scored 31 goals so far this season for the Cavaliers– just one goal fewer than the Cats’ leading scorer, senior attack Erin Fitzgerald.

If NU wants to survive the challenging weekend the same way it pulled off two come-from-behind, one-point wins over Spring Break, the Cats will have to remain patient.

“Panic mode definitely gets you in a lot of trouble,” Fitzgerald said. “We have had a lot of times where we’ve come back in the second half and I think that is because we stayed calm and really fought … focusing, taking it play by play and not trying to get a home run goal has been our focus.”

Although NU is coming off of two clutch wins, Penn State has notched a few notable victories so far this season, including wins against James Madison and then-No. 6 Virginia at the beginning of March.

The Nittany Lions are also currently on a roll — the upset over Florida ended the Gators’ 24-game regular-season win streak and was Penn State’s third win in a row, after victories against Vanderbilt and Drexel.

One of coach Kelly Amonte Hiller’s main concerns about the Friday night game was Penn State’s strong mentality.

“They’re coming in with a lot of confidence, they’re very athletic, they’ve got some great ball handlers, they’re just really scrappy,” Amonte Hiller said. “We need to be at our best.”

In addition to the confidence, the Nittany Lions boast a dangerous offensive threat in Maggie McCormick, a sophomore with 26 goals this season. 

Additionally, the Nittany Lions have the 10th-best scoring offense in the nation and rank eighth in draw controls per game, averaging 14.3 per contest.

The Cats’ average of 15.1 draw controls per game is the third best in the country. Junior midfielder and draw control specialist Alyssa Leonard, despite winning only four draw controls in her team’s most recent game against No. 5 Syracuse, ranks second in the nation with an average of 7.4 draw controls per match.

Fitzgerald said the team’s draw control struggles means that a focus on quality possession will be key to beating NU’s weekend opponents.

“When draw controls aren’t going our way, we have to focus on keeping possession … and that we’re making the most of that possession,” Fitzgerald said. “If we’re going to goal, we need to make sure we’re getting a goal or are going to get the ball back.”

The Cats may also gain some confidence against the Nittany Lions from NU’s distinctive home-field advantage – the team is 86-2 on Lakeside Field since the start of the 2005 season. So far this season, the Cats’ only loss came against then-No. 5 North Carolina on the road at the end of February.

Amonte Hiller said the key to performing well in both games this weekend is all about effort and mentality, not her team’s history.

“It doesn’t really change much from home to away, it’s just a matter of being focused, coming out right from the first whistle,” Amonte Hiller said. “Getting a strong start and making sure that you up the intensity every time out … you have to match their level of intensity and really have that focus.”