May 27, 2012

'Cats Benefit from Soul Searching in the Center Circle

by Chris R. Vaccaro |

Northwestern's Alyssa Leonard soars above Syracuse's Kailah Kempney for a draw control.

© John Mecionis

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STONY BROOK, N.Y. – In lacrosse, possession is everything. For Northwestern, it helps to have Alyssa Leonard, one of the top draw control specialists in the nation.

Still, an 18-5 draw control deficit in the Wildcats' American Lacrosse Conference (ALC) championship game loss to Florida on May 5 sent shockwaves through Evanston and forced them to retool before their latest NCAA tournament run, which ended with an 8-6 win Sunday over Syracuse in the championship game.

"I really was upset after the Florida game," said Northwestern head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller. "The thing I was most upset about was the draw controls. I feel we have a tradition of very strong draws. I felt I was failing the team not giving the kids enough coaching. I think Alyssa really took it to heart. She was on a mission to get better and to do better. She's so talented. Since that game she's been unbelievable."

Only a sophomore, Leonard has the second- and third-highest draw control totals in Northwestern history with 91 last year and 90 this year.

Leonard's six draw controls Sunday night helped guide the Wildcats to their seventh title in eight years and their second straight at Stony Brook University's LaValle Stadium.

No one took the loss and lack of draw controls against Florida tougher than Leonard.

"That's been in the back of my head ever since," said Leonard, who hails from Long Island and was last year's ALC Rookie of the Year. "We had the score [of that game] on the scoreboard at practice. I think that's where I decided I needed to step up for the team."

Northwestern won seven of eight draws in the second half in their 9-7 win over Maryland and finished with a 13-5 advantage in the NCAA semifinal Friday. Again the Wildcats had a dominant stretch of draws in the championship game, winning eight straight and nine of 10 in the first half against Syracuse and 12 of 16 overall.

In Northwestern's 11-9 overtime victory over Syracuse earlier this season, Kaliah Kempney had the advantage in draws for the Orange, winning seven to Leonard's four. Overall the Orange beat the Wildcats 14-9 in draws that game.

"You have to have the ball to keep that momentum going," said Syracuse head coach Gary Gait. "The last three quarters of the [championship] game we didn't touch the ball very often. We didn't have a lot of opportunities, and we still managed to hang in there. If you don't win the draw, you can't have more opportunities on the offense."

On Sunday, Syracuse recorded four draw controls from four different players -- none from Kempney.

"I was really looking to get the ball straight up and hopefully beat my girl as far as quickness and getting my hands to the ball first, and it worked for me today," said Leonard, who ranks seventh all-time in Northwestern history with 181 draw controls. "If I didn't go to myself, my teammates were right there really ready for those ground balls, loose balls, anything."

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