May 22, 2014

Wildcats Enter Familiar Situation From New Perspective

by Laurel Pfahler | | Twitter | May Madness Home

Senior Alyssa Leonard leads Northwestern with 40 goals, 11 assists and 160 draw controls, as the Wildcats are in the semifinals as a potential upset maker rather than the favorite. (TD Paulius)

Even in a down year, the Northwestern University women's lacrosse team is thriving in the postseason.

Despite suffering twice as many losses as any other season the past decade, the Wildcats (14-6) find themselves back in the hunt for a national title.

Northwestern meets top-seeded Maryland (21-1) in the semifinals Friday at Towson's Johnny Unitas Stadium. The Wildcats advanced to their 10th straight Final Four by beating Florida 12-11 in overtime in the quarterfinals – after losing two one-goal games to the Gators within the last month.

"I'm very proud of my team and what they've been able to do to get to this point," Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said.

The Wildcats opened the season 4-3 with one-goal losses to Notre Dame and Ohio State and an 11-7 loss to Syracuse on March 23. The slow start was highly out of the norm for a team that entered this season with 12 losses combined since the program won its first national title with a perfect record in 2005.

Northwestern rallied to win five straight after that -- with four of those coming against ranked opponents, including beating then-No. 1 North Carolina, 7-5, on March 31.

But in mid-April, Johns Hopkins dealt another blow -- in double-overtime -- and Florida accounted for two more losses, one at the end of the regular season and the other in the American Lacrosse Conference championship.

"I think we fought really hard but the competition was just better this year," said senior attacker Alyssa Leonard, who leads the team with 40 goals, 11 assists and 160 draw controls. "Everyone was giving us a good game. There is no team out there that was going to be an easy win.

"I think we came in with more a little more confidence than we should have and learned our lesson quickly that every game was going to be a battle. We committed to working on the little things and making sure we weren't going to come out on the other end of those one-goal games again."

All but one of the Wildcats' six losses were by one goal.

Amonte Hiller said some of the early losses had to do with making adjustments to replace graduated players that had been so key in the lineup the previous year. Once, the Wildcats found the right balance of personnel, they began to mesh better, she said, and results eventually came their way.

After a first-round bye, Northwestern pushed through its first two games of the NCAA tournament, beating Louisville 11-8 in the second round at home before edging the Gators on the road in the quarterfinals.

"It's definitely been a different road than in the past," Leonard said. "Being on the road in the (quarterfinals) was different. But each and every year we made it here, it wasn't necessarily a sense of 'we've got this one' or that we expected it. This year, we had to go above and beyond to earn our way."

Northwestern is looking for a return to the final after North Carolina ousted it last year in the semifinals before going on to win the championship. The Wildcats had made eight straight finals appearances before that, winning seven titles. Their only finals loss came against Maryland in 2010, which they avenged the next year.

Maryland is the only Final Four opponent the Wildcats haven't played this season. The Terrapins are 6-7 against the Wildcats all-time, but lost the last two meetings – in the 2012 semifinals and 2011 final.

"It's a little more work (preparing for a new team)," Amonte Hiller said. "You have to get to know the other team a little better, but with video exchange, as a lacrosse fan yourself, you always want to watch the other top teams, so we've watched Maryland. They are such a great team, and they've had a lot of great games this year. ... For us, we need to focus in on ourselves in addition to game-planning for Maryland because when we do that we are at our best."

Northwestern just always seems to be at its best this time of year.

"I think getting to the Final Four is complimentary of how we started to pick it up after we had those losses and realized we needed to get it together," Leonard said. "It's nice we are peaking now because it's a great time to do so. Given our past history, this has been a time we kind of pick it up a notch but we've been playing this way for a while now so hopefully we can keep it going.

"We're proud of what we've done, but there is still a lot more work to be done."

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