Spring Sports Guide: Lacrosse: After loss of stars, Northwestern ‘all in this together’

Ava Wallace, Sports Editor

Junior starting goalkeeper Bridget Bianco — a self-described impatient goalie — isn’t one for mincing words.

“I think it’s just a stepping stone. It’s in the past now,” she said. “It was nice, and now it’s over.”

That’s what Bianco had to say of No. 4 Northwestern’s season opener, a 13-12 victory against Virginia on Feb. 9. Bianco called it an important win. It could have gone either way against the Cavaliers, who won their last NCAA Championship in 1993 but have been runner-up six times since, including once against the Wildcats.

Although Bianco is talking about having moved on from that close, early-February victory, her words could just as well describe how the team is feeling about last season — one defined by the leadership of two league-leading seniors in since-graduated midfielder Taylor Thornton and attack Erin Fitzgerald.

A season that, despite a 19-3 record, ended at the NCAA quarterfinals and was NU’s shortest since 2005.

So this year, the Cats are trying something new.

“What’s special about this group, too, is that there’s no one person that we’re going to rely on,” senior defender Kerri Harrington said. “There’s no one top player in the nation that everyone is relying on. I think in the past, sometimes we have had that, that person that when the game gets tough you can fall back on. What’s so exciting is that we’re all in this together, we’re going to have to grind it out and figure out a way to win.”

Not that NU is lacking talent. Harrington didn’t stand out on last year’s stat sheet but was a critical defensive leader, especially when Bianco was getting used to her newly-won starting position in goal. She belongs to a skilled senior class.

Anchoring the offense-minded midfield are seniors Kat DeRonda and Kate Macdonald, both of whom have 5 goals so far in the young season. DeRonda was one of three juniors last year who notched double-digit goals on the season and has a quick stick known to get the Cats going in dry spells during games.

MacDonald excelled on free-possession balls last year. The senior committed only seven turnovers after playing in every game of the season but ended 2013 having collected the third-most ground balls on the team with 29.

But the most visible of coach Kelly Amonte Hiller’s seniors is midfielder and resident draw control specialist Alyssa Leonard.

Leonard already has 32 draw controls so far this season. To put Leonard’s dominance on the circle in perspective, DeRonda and sophomore midfielder Lauren Murray are tied for second on the team with five apiece.

During NU’s victory against Duke on Saturday, Leonard moved into third on the NCAA career draw controls list with 329 career possessions; she logged nine more against Marquette on Tuesday. The senior also holds the program record for most draw controls in a single season with 125.

To say Leonard’s possessions give NU an edge over teams with similar playing styles — like Duke and Virginia, both of whom the Cats beat by just a goal — is an understatement.

“I try not to think about the numbers,” Leonard said. “I’m really just trying to take it game-by-game and do the best I can game-by-game. At the end of my four years I’ll take a look at the numbers and maybe see what I’ve accomplished, but as of right now … I’m just working before and after practice, doing max reps and making sure when I get out there I can get every single ball.”

In addition to NU’s senior leadership, Amonte Hiller attributes this season’s cohesion and interdependence to the open-mindedness and positive attitude the team’s freshmen bring to the turf.

Bianco gives the rookies credit for the team’s defensive success as well.

Freshman midfielder Sheila Nesselbush has started every game this season, and classmate Catie Ingrilli has clocked minutes in all three contests. Each freshman has also scored a goal.

“I think our freshmen have done a great job, especially with our defense,” Bianco said. “It’s really high pressure, it’s a lot of work. … Sheila specifically, I’ve been working with a lot outside of practice. On the field, she’s my go-to person when I want to clear the ball, so she’s been great about stepping up in big games. … It shows how much our freshmen have really adapted well to our program.”

NU has put together a largely unsurprising, though not unchallenging, schedule for this spring.

The Cats will play their fellow American Lacrosse Conference members for the last time before moving over to the new Big Ten women’s lacrosse conference next year. Current ALC members Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State will move over to the Big Ten’s newest league with NU.

Conference rival Florida — who handed the Cats a 22-4 loss, the worst it had experienced in 12 years and its fourth-straight to the Gators, last April — is scheduled for April 19.

The team’s spring slate also includes two always-demanding teams against whom the Cats pulled out close wins last season: Syracuse and Notre Dame. NU will also have a chance for redemption against one of its first losses of the 2013 season and defending NCAA Champions North Carolina at home March 30.

Then comes April 26, when NU will take its turn as the school’s second program, after the baseball squad, to play at Wrigley Field, for its season-closer against USC.

Despite the wrinkle of the Friendly Confines thrown in, spring will be mostly par for the course for the Cats and Amonte Hiller, who received a contract extension through the 2021 season on Feb. 4.

The extension comes after the highly regarded coach received two accolades during the offseason. The Maryland alumna was named one of 25 Chicago Sports Legends by ChicagoSideSports.com and honored as one of “Crain’s Chicago Business'” 2013 class of “40 Under 40.”

Predictably, outside praise is not causing the coach to waver from her steely focus on the present.

“I think that awards like that is just someone’s perception of you, and you know, really what’s important are the people around me and how I … put my best foot forward every single day,” Amonte Hiller said. “… I can’t be proud of accomplishments in the past. I have to be proud of what I’ve done today to make this group better and make these individuals grow.”

Her day-by-day mentality trickles down to her team, which Leonard said sets goals on a weekly basis, based on what opponents are on the schedule that given week.

But the Cats are not incapable of thinking big picture.

In addition to focusing on group cohesion and everyone pitching in on the turf, NU has something of a new slogan this year, a mantra from a speech Navy SEAL and author Rorke Denver gave to NU athletes from the class of 2015 earlier this year.

Bianco said the team, especially the goalies, internalized Denver’s phrase, “Calm is contagious,” as well as new assistant coach Tim McCormack’s motto, “Every day is game day.”

These are the phrases Bianco said the Cats will practice and compete by this season. Both shed light on the critical need for a focused intensity as NU moves forward and tries to reclaim the NCAA title, which would be the program’s eighth in 10 years.

“Our practices are extremely high intensity. … It’s never a breakdown. You don’t walk through things. You’re always on fire, always getting after it,” Bianco said. “Practice how you play, right?”

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