February 17, 2012

Season Preview (WD1): No. 1 Northwestern

by Clare Lochary | LaxMagazine.com

Two-way midfielder Ali Cassera and Northwestern battled Team USA at Champion Challenge last month.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com 

If there’s one thing Northwestern knows how to do, it’s to defend a title. And now the Wildcats get to do it again.

Northwestern is best known for its offense (13.38 goals per game), but the Wildcats like defense too. A high-pressure ride has been a signature part of Northwestern’s style since the program’s early days, when head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller had to drag non-laxers onto the field and into an adaptation of a basketball full-court press. It was all they knew how to do.

Now that the Wildcats are the best in the game, Amonte Hiller has her pick of recruits. But she still likes an aggressive defense that causes turnovers and gets possessions. Expect to see Northwestern do that more than ever in 2012.

“We’ve come out of the fall with the idea that our defensive players haven’t produced a lot of offense for us, and we want that to change,” Amonte Hiller said.

Veteran defender Colleen Magarity graduated, but sophomore Kerri Harrington, who famously blanked Maryland’s Sarah Mollison in the championship, is primed to take her spot alongside senior Lacey Vigmostad, the team’s leader in caused turnovers. Senior Alex Frank (19 goals, 23 caused turnovers) will return to low defense after spending last season as a midfielder. All of that talent in the backfield might even allow IWCLA Defender of the Year Taylor Thornton to migrate back to midfield.

“The jury’s still out [on Thornton’s position]. Regardless of what position we put her at, we expect her to be more offensive,” Amonte Hiller said. “Taylor’s just so good at what she does defensively, but it might change.”

Amonte Hiller loves tinkering with her lineup throughout the season. Only six players — Magarity, Frank, Thornton, Vigmostad, Tewaaraton Award winner Shannon Smith and goalie Brianne LoManto — started all 23 games in 2011. LoManto, now a senior and a two-year starter, had a solid junior season (.446 save percentage) capped by a clutch eight-save performance in the national championship game against Maryland. Her steady presence will give the new defense a chance to find its identity, and to take some risks that will allow Northwestern to produce the kinds of offensive possessions Amonte Hiller wants to see.

“We have 21 underclassmen on the team, and we’ve got to get everyone focused on the same page. But they’ve shown they can step up and fill the void,” LoManto said. “A lot of things are focusing on what’s right in front of you and not look at the long run.”

That one-day-at-a-time approach has earned the Wildcats six NCAA championship rings. As the lacrosse world eagerly waits to see what they’ll do in the future, Northwestern remains resolutely focused on the present.

This article appears in the February issue of Lacrosse Magazine, the flagship publication of US Lacrosse. Join US Lacrosse and its 400,000-plus members today to start your subscription to LM. Follow LaxMagazine.com all season long, and check out the Wildcats' team page.

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