Lacrosse: Despite Northwestern’s inconsistent year, Bianco shines between the pipes

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Lacrosse: Despite Northwestern’s inconsistent year, Bianco shines between the pipes

Junior goalkeeper Bridget Bianco  gets in position to attempt a save during Northwestern’s game against Vanderbilt. Bianco is seventh nationally in goals-against average and will look to shut down No. 4 Florida on Saturday in NU’s Senior Day.

Junior goalkeeper Bridget Bianco gets in position to attempt a save during Northwestern’s game against Vanderbilt. Bianco is seventh nationally in goals-against average and will look to shut down No. 4 Florida on Saturday in NU’s Senior Day.

Brian Lee/Daily Senior Staffer

Junior goalkeeper Bridget Bianco gets in position to attempt a save during Northwestern’s game against Vanderbilt. Bianco is seventh nationally in goals-against average and will look to shut down No. 4 Florida on Saturday in NU’s Senior Day.

Brian Lee/Daily Senior Staffer

Brian Lee/Daily Senior Staffer

Junior goalkeeper Bridget Bianco gets in position to attempt a save during Northwestern’s game against Vanderbilt. Bianco is seventh nationally in goals-against average and will look to shut down No. 4 Florida on Saturday in NU’s Senior Day.

Ava Wallace, Web Editor

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In an uncharacteristically inconsistent season marred by three one-goal losses and a tough defeat against Syracuse, Northwestern fans can count on few things when it comes to the No. 5 Wildcats (9-4, 3-2 ALC).

Sophomore Kaleigh Craig and senior Kat DeRonda will probably score, senior draw control specialist Alyssa Leonard will win at least a few draws, and junior goalkeeper Bridget Bianco will come up with some big saves.

The first three players are doing what’s expected of them, what Cats fans have grown accustomed to.

It’s Bianco who is the team’s dark horse, one who has become a stalwart leader when a desperate team needed an anchor.

When NU upended then-No. 1 North Carolina at Lakeside Field just a week after it lost to then-No. 3 Syracuse 11-7, Bianco and the Cats kept the high-powered Tar Heels to only 5 goals, UNC’s first single-digit scoring total in nearly a year.

Getting the first save of each game, as Bianco has done multiple times this season including against the Tar Heels, was one of the goalie’s aims this year. Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said it has made things easier for the whole team.

“It’s such an emotional boost when you get that big save from your goalie, and to get as many as Bridget has been making, it’s a difference maker,” Amonte Hiller said. “It really wears down the other team — we’re pressuring them, Bridget comes up with a big save. They get a good look — Bridget comes up with a save. It really wears you down.”

Bianco’s first-save focus has helped the Cats’ defense keep top teams to low scores; the five wins NU racked up from the end of March to mid-April all saw opponents with single-digit tallies. Her leadership in NU’s zone has helped the defense run a tight ship and the offense play a possession game.

The junior’s steady play comes in part from her growth last season. Bianco was not exactly flailing in goal last year — she ended with a solid 7.63 goals-against average — but 2013 was also her first year starting every game, and she was tasked with replacing former standout Brianne LoManto.

Bianco was making saves last year, but her presence on the field is noticeably improved this season. That energetic presence, usually in the form of an authoritative yell or fist pump, has made her into a more complete leader.

That presence, the junior said, comes from experience.

“I’m definitely more comfortable in a starting position,” Bianco said. “Facing teams like a UNC, a Florida, big, huge teams, I don’t feel as timid.”

Bianco now sits seventh nationally in goals-against average, at 7.6.

Two goalies from No. 7 Johns Hopkins are the only others from a top-10 team above Bianco, and both have played fewer games than the Cats’ junior. Bianco has been tabbed the ALC Defensive Player of the Week twice this season and was on the Tewaaraton Award watch list in late February.

Bianco also clocked her career-high number of saves earlier this season in a 13-12 season-opening win against then-No. 8 Virginia. She recorded 14 stops, just one short of the NU single-game record.

Both Bianco and Amonte Hiller credit NU’s newest assistant coach, Tim McCormack, as well as the Cats’ two other goalkeepers, junior Brooke Jones and freshman Natalee Easthom, with a large part of Bianco’s success.

“We’re just like our own little goalie group,” Bianco said. “Natalee, Brooke, they’re two totally different goalies, and the difference is, this year, we collaborate. … It’s just the little things that make you a little bit more confident each day so when I step on the field I literally have nothing to be worried about because I have those two and Tim.”

McCormack echoed Bianco, saying her improvement is largely in her mental game.

“We’ve constantly talked about being calm and patient, focusing and waiting for that shot. You know, she’s worked very hard at that,” he said. “It’s been 90 percent mental work with her. You can see it in action Saturdays.”

The junior will need to have her wits about her this Saturday, when NU hosts No. 4 Florida (14-2, 5-0 ALC).

When the Cats last played the Gators in the regular season, Florida handed Amonte Hiller the worst loss of her tenure at NU, a 22-4 whooping last season in Gainesville, Fla. The Cats then turned around to beat the Gators in the conference championship game just two weeks later.

In that regular-season game, Florida let loose a barrage of 28 shots on Bianco, the most the junior goalie has ever faced.

Needless to say, Bianco will have a tough game ahead of her. The pressure to win is intensified, as Saturday is NU’s Senior Day, when the team will celebrate their nine-woman senior class.

But, senior or not, don’t be surprised if it’s Bianco who plays the hero in Saturday’s game. She’s having that kind of season.

Email: avawallace2015@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @AvaRWallace

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