Lacrosse: Taylor Thornton, Alyssa Leonard lead Northwestern to 2nd round victory over Stanford

Northwestern junior Alyssa Leonard looks to pass in the midfield Sunday against Sanford. Leonard, who owns the NU single-season record for draw controls with 120 so far this season, won 8 draw controls and scored 3 goals in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Melody Song/Daily Senior Staffer

Northwestern junior Alyssa Leonard looks to pass in the midfield Sunday against Sanford. Leonard, who owns the NU single-season record for draw controls with 120 so far this season, won 8 draw controls and scored 3 goals in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Ava Wallace, Assistant Sports Editor

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For the majority of the first half, it looked like fans at Lakeside Field were going to be treated to a neck-and-neck competition between two aggressive teams hungry for a win.

Then Taylor Thornton took control of the field.

Then Alyssa Leonard started dominating on the circle.

Then No. 2 seed Northwestern started slipping away from Stanford, and the Wildcats did not look back.

NU (18-2) tallied its second victory of the season against Stanford (14-6), winning 15-8 to knock the Cardinal out of the NCAA Tournament in the second round Sunday afternoon. The Cats received a first-round bye due to their high seed.

Both Leonard, a junior midfielder and the team’s draw specialist, and Thornton, a senior midfielder, led the team in points with 4 each.

The veteran players had 3 goals and 1 assist each. Leonard also won 8 draw controls, and Thornton pulled 4.

Thornton said she is now motivated by her dwindling time on the field.

“I think, at least being a senior, I just kind of have the mindset that I only have 60 minutes guaranteed for me to ever play lacrosse again,” Thornton said. “Every ground ball, draw control possession could be my last, so that’s literally what’s running through my mind every time.”

Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said the Cats’ leading scorer, senior attack Erin Fitzgerald, was a key factor – or perhaps non-factor – that allowed Thornton and Leonard to play a more aggressive offense.

Along with NU’s May 5 victory against Florida for the ALC Championship title, Sunday’s game is only the second contest this season in which Fitzgerald has not scored.

“I just talked to her this week about having patience and knowing that if she doesn’t have goals on the board and we’re winning, that’s the most important thing,” Amonte Hiller said of Fitzgerald. “She’s taking out their best defender for us, and she attracts a lot of attention defensively, so she’s helping us out no matter what happens.”

Leonard’s productive game was cut short when the junior collided with a Stanford player while reaching for a draw with about 10 minutes left in the contest. But for the bulk of the afternoon, Leonard’s careful, cutting shots were representative of the team’s shot selection.

NU piled in shot after well-placed, piercing shot, and Cardinal goalie Lyndsey Munoz made only 2 saves against the Cats.

Thornton’s first goal, which she scored with 11:48 left in the first half, kicked off the streak during which she and Leonard combined to score six times in a 26-minute period that surrounded halftime.

Thornton gave NU its largest lead of the first half when she put the Cats up 6-4 with 1:34 left in the period. Stanford’s Julia Barns retaliated at the top of the second half to narrow the Cats’ lead to 1, but Thornton answered her goal less than 4 minutes later, and NU’s lead grew from there.

Both Leonard, Thornton and senior midfielder Ali Cassera, who had 2 goals in the second half and 1 in the first, brought the Cats out of a first-half funk.

Amonte Hiller said the first half, which saw 8 turnovers from NU and 9 from Stanford, was sloppier than the team had wanted.

“I think that oftentimes happens in your first NCAA game, especially since those guys had a dry-run on Friday night,” she said.

The Cats ultimately out-battled the Cardinal on ground balls and draws, which NU won 18-14 and 18-6, respectively.

Draw controls – something Amonte Hiller said the team discussed at halftime – improved in the second half.

The Cats entered halftime having won 6 draws compared to the Cardinal’s 4, but they dominated in the circle 12-2 in the second half.

Although Leonard won many of the draws for NU without the help of her teammates on the circle, Leonard, Thornton and Amonte Hiller all attributed their team’s offensive efficiency to more awareness on the field.

“I think that the team is playing good team defense, team offense together, and that’s really been our focus, really feeding off of each other,” Amonte Hiller said. “When you know you have people behind you, it’s easy to feel like you can step up, and that’s what Alyssa and Taylor did today.”

NU will take on ALC rival Penn State on Saturday night in the NCAA Tournament’s quarterfinal round.

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