Lacrosse: Familiar foes await Wildcats in NCAA Tournament


Nathan Richards/Daily Senior Staffer

Junior Kara Mupo and the Wildcats head into the NCAA Tournament on the heels of a loss in the ALC Tournament final. After a first-round bye, Northwestern could face Ohio State and Florida, two conference rivals the Cats have played twice apiece.

Bobby Pillote, Assistant Sports Editor

Northwestern will face a familiar — and difficult — path to a potential eighth national championship.

The No. 5 Wildcats (12-6) received the 5th overall seed in the NCAA Tournament and will have the benefit of a first-round bye, but beyond that their bracket won’t be easy.

Lurking in wait will be the winner of No. 10 Ohio State (13-6) and No. 16 Louisville (15-3). Should the Buckeyes prevail, NU will find itself matched against an opponent it has gone 1-1 against this year, narrowly losing in overtime during the regular season but returning the favor in the ALC Tournament.

Ohio State attacker Katie Chase has had the Cats’ number this season, scoring a combined 9 goals between the two contests.

Beyond the second round game lies an even bigger potential hurdle: freshly minted ALC champion Florida. The No. 3 Gators (17-2) also have a first-round bye and will play the winner of No. 17 Denver (18-1) and Jacksonville (14-5). They should have no trouble winning that game to reach the tournament quarterfinal.

NU and Florida have played two tight games so far this year. During their regular season battle, the Cats scored a goal to tie the game at the end of regulation, but junior midfielder Kara Mupo was called for a crease violation and her goal was waved off to secure a Gators’ victory.

In the ALC championship game, NU jumped out to a 5-goal halftime lead but fell victim to a stunning comeback to lose the game and its shot at a conference title.

“That loss stung pretty good,” coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said.

Complicating matters even more for the Cats, sophomore midfielder and dynamic scorer Kaleigh Craig is expected to remain sidelined with an injury for the duration of the tournament.

But potential pitfalls aside, Amonte Hiller has her squad rigorously preparing for what could be a grueling three weekends.

“It’s a lot mental,” she said. “We do work on it in practice. We have to compete against each other and push each other and put each other in those adverse situations.”

NU’s difficult regular season schedule — the Cats played 12 ranked opponents — is sure to give the team somewhat of an edge, but the players also have faith in their own preparation.

“Whenever we have time, especially at the beginning of the week, we just go really hard,” senior attacker Alyssa Leonard said. “Pure competitiveness is really helpful.”

Leonard has been the heart of NU’s offense lately, scoring 7 goals in the ALC Tournament. Her prolific ability to win draws also makes her the backbone of the Cats’ possession-based attack. A seasoned veteran and the NCAA all-time leader in draw controls, Leonard still practices her draws after every practice.

“I do it all season. I do it every single day,” she said. “I need to know going in that I’ve seen every draw setup that I could possibly get. … I go against every single person that takes a draw on the team, just to put myself in a situation where I’m ready for anything.”

Leonard struggled in the second half against Florida, but Amonte Hiller will need her, and the entire squad, in top form to make another title run.

“This team is definitely battle-tested,” Amonte Hiller said. “Their wills have been tested, and I think they’re ready to go.”

Ava Wallace contributed reporting.

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Twitter: @BobbyPillote