Lacrosse: Northwestern looks to demonstrate growth in 9th Final Four appearance


Daily file photo by Melody Song

Northwestern midfielder Taylor Thornton has scored 28 goals this season. The Wildcats are seeking their eighth national title in nine years this weekend.

Ava Wallace, Assistant Sports Editor

It is only fitting that Northwestern drew North Carolina for its semifinal matchup, the first game of the Wildcats’ ninth consecutive trip to the Final Four.

Friday afternoon’s contest in Philadelphia is No. 2 NU’s (19-2) shot at redemption against No. 3 North Carolina (16-3). The Tar Heels beat the Cats 11-8 in February, and NU does not take redemption lightly.

The most recent example came this season when, following its most embarrassing loss in coach Kelly Amonte Hiller’s tenure — a 22-4 defeat by Florida toward end of the regular season — the Cats went on to beat the Gators 8-3 two weeks later in the ALC Championship game.

Win or lose, Amonte Hiller said Friday is NU’s chance to demonstrate its vast improvements from the beginning of the season, when the team was still learning how to mesh together on the field. And despite their higher ranking, the Cats head in to Friday’s match as underdogs, thanks to their loss to the Tar Heels.

Senior midfielder Taylor Thornton said she does not mind.

“I think what’s so special about this program is we try to keep everything in a bubble,” Thornton said. “I don’t read media, hype is hype, you can say whatever you want to say, but I have a great love and tremendous passion for this team. I mean, who doesn’t like to be the underdog? If that’s what they want to call us, I’ll take that title with great pride.”

In a conference call Tuesday with the three other coaches of the programs in this year’s Final Four, Amonte Hiller said it is hard to compare the current team with the February squad that lost to North Carolina.

She said most of her team’s improvement came in the past few weeks.

“I think that after our late-season loss to Florida our team just realizes that we just need to go out there and play and put it all out there and be satisfied with the effort they put forth,” Amonte Hiller said.

The Cats have not been defeated since their April loss to Florida and have been particularly dominant in their two NCAA Tournament games so far. NU defeated Stanford by 7 goals and Penn State by 8. The team gave particularly dominating performances in the circle and offensive efficiency, outpacing both teams in draw controls.

Against Stanford, seven players scored goals, and nine scored against Penn State.

Junior draw specialist Alyssa Leonard and Thornton have emerged as the Cats’ main offensive threats: The two players have combined to score more than one-third of NU’s goals in the NCAA Tournament.

Junior defender Kerri Harrington, known for shutting down the nation’s biggest scorers, also heads a typically fierce Cats defense that has allowed only 15 goals in the tournament so far.

Amonte Hiller reiterated the importance of playing as a cohesive defensive unit, which she said is the only way to beat a North Carolina offense that has four players with 30 or more goals on the season after playing two fewer games than NU has.

“I think it’s got to be systematic,” Amonte Hiller said. “They have way too many weapons to be able to focus in on one or two people. We have to make sure that they play great team defense, work together, back each other up, and that’s something we’ve really been focusing in on these last few weeks.”

Both Amonte Hiller and Thornton mentioned the Cats’ experience — both during the season since the loss to North Carolina and in playing eight previous Final Fours for seven national titles — when naming NU’s biggest assets heading into championship weekend.

“This is a team that has a tremendous amount of experience,” Thornton said. “And I think we know what to do.”