May 20, 2009

Northwestern Thrives off the Drawing Board

by Christopher Gentilviso | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Northwestern's Katrina Dowd flourished in Hilary Bowen's (torn ACL) absence and upon her return, netting seven goals in each of the Wildcats' wins, over UMass and Princeton, in the NCAA tournament.

© TD Paulius/Midwest Lacrosse Photography

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Penn women's lacrosse coach Karin Brower has seen enough of Northwestern to know the best way to stop the Wildcats: keep the ball in her own team's hands.

"I felt like when we did have the ball, we could put it in the net," Brower said after an 11-9 loss to Northwestern on April 25. "We need to have the ball a lot more to win that game."

Penn will have another chance to prove that assertion Friday, when the two teams square off in the NCAA semifinals in Towson, Md. This marks the sixth Quakers-Wildcats showdown over the last three years, including the third matchup in final four play.

For Penn to pick up its first win against Northwestern in postseason play, winning the draw control battle will be crucial. Through two NCAA tournament games, the Wildcats (21-0) have not relented on their mission to dominate games via possession.

Entering its opening round matchup with Massachusetts, Northwestern was winning 65 percent of its draws in 2009. That number has ballooned to 75 percent in the NCAA tournament, thanks to a 23-8 advantage over the Minutewomen in the first round and a 20-7 advantage over the Tigers in the quarterfinals.

Wildcats coach Kelly Amonte Hiller has used two primary weapons on draws this season: wiry 6-foot-2 junior Danielle Spencer and cagey 5-foot-7 freshman Alexandra Frank. But Amonte Hiller said there is no formula to success on draws, beyond viewing each as an individual situation.

"We usually just try and keep an open mind with it," Amonte Hiller said after her team's 16-9 quarterfinal win over Princeton. "Each person that you draw against is different. Sometimes Danielle has a lot more success than Alex and vice versa. Danielle was just dominating, so no reason to change that situation."

Defense may win championships, but not when it comes to the brass of women's lacrosse. With a plus-27 advantage on draws this postseason, Northwestern has registered 49 more shots than its opponents.

That aggression has led to 39 goals -- the most by any Wildcats team in the first two rounds since their string of national championships began in 2005.

While Northwestern endured eight games without leading attacker Hilary Bowen, their offense has not missed a beat. Just ask Princeton goalie Erin Tochihara.

The stoic sophomore entered the quarterfinals matchup allowing just over eight goals per game. The Wildcats registered eight goals in the first half on 21 shots, and Tochihara needed nine saves to keep her team within three goals after 30 minutes of play.

"Northwestern's attack has seven great shooters -- all of them can put the ball wherever they want," Tochihara said. "I tried to keep things as simple as possible, but in that situation, they're shooting a lot of shots."

The biggest surprise among those seven shooters was Bowen. Eight games removed from tearing her left ACL, she scored one goal in her return against the Tigers. Bowen is expected to play against Penn on Friday.

But beyond her scoring contributions, Bowen was even more effective in drawing the defense's mind away from other Wildcats weapons.

"It gives your team a real psychological lift to get a player like that back out there, even if she isn't playing the whole game or as effective as she has been," Princeton coach Chris Sailer said. "You know she is going to be a good player and get some attention."

As Bowen drew that attention, Katrina Dowd continued to build on her record-setting pace in the 2009 NCAA tournament. Far removed from being out of the starting lineup during a three-game stretch in March, Dowd has scored 14 goals over the first two games. She is inching closer to shattering the NCAA postseason record of 17 goals, which Bowen tied last season.

But much of Dowd's success came off of Spencer's work on draws. Five of Dowd's seven goals were unassisted -- evidence of Northwestern's ability to quickly advance the ball into its zone and keep opposing defenses on their heels.

Regardless of who was scoring and what direction they were coming from, Sailer's summation of her team's defeat was no different than Brower's from earlier in the season.

"We knew that to win this game, we were going to have to compete on the draws," Sailer said. "We just weren't able to do that."

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