May 18, 2013

Northwestern Storms Out of Gate to Beat Penn State

by Jonah Rosenblum | LaxMagazine.com | Live Blog Replay

Ali Cassera and Northwestern are headed back to the final four. "I think people think it's kind of automatic that we're going to go to the final four, but it's very hard to get there," Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said.
© John Zich

EVANSTON, Ill. — Sprinkled into an otherwise stellar season for the Northwestern women's lacrosse have been a few troublingly slow starts.

The Wildcats this season fell behind North Carolina 7-1, Florida 5-0, Syracuse 4-1, and Ohio State, 5-2.

Against Penn State on Saturday night in the NCAA quarterfinals, Northwestern sped right out of the gate, notching five goals before the Nittany Lions managed a single shot. The second-seeded Wildcats never looked back as they cruised to a 15-7 victory over seventh-seeded Penn State.

"I personally think it's all mentality," Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said. "Every player is going to be different how they mentally prepare and throughout the season they have to figure that out. How are they going to be ready when the first whistle blows? I think that our girls have really been figuring that out and we've been talking about that a lot in our preparation is how are you going to be ready to go?"

The Nittany Lions turned the ball over seven times in the first half, thus cutting off its opening drives before they ever truly began, and Northwestern took advantage, holding the ball for the vast majority of the period and outshooting Penn State, 20-4, heading into the intermission.

"I don't think we ever had the ball down there. It's not like we got it down there and then missed a shot or couldn't get people open. We just never had the ball down there," Penn State coach Missy Doherty said. "They just did a great job coming up with possession. I think the draws in the first half were 13-4 and the score was 13-3, so it's hard to win without possession."

Even with a 5-0 lead, Northwestern wasn't done. In fact, junior midfielder Alyssa Leonard was just getting started. With a little over ten and a half minutes remaining in the opening stanza, the Wildcats found Leonard in front of the net, and she punched in her first goal as she was pushed to the ground. Just five minutes later, Leonard welcomed Penn State's backup goaltender to Lakeside Field with a wraparound goal. Another wraparound gave Leonard a hat trick — with a minute and change still remaining in the first half. She capped off her day by storming down the field after winning a draw and placing a shot right through the goalie's five hole to give Northwestern a 13-3 lead.

"We talked a lot about when people come out to play you, trust yourself to take them on," Leonard said. "I also have to credit my teammates because there was also a lot of draw and dump situations and everyone was just cutting through hard, dodging hard and giving me the layups, so I was kind of doing the easy part and they were really working hard."

For Penn State, a well-fought season continued until the final whistle. The Nittany Lions ended the night with four unanswered goals and held the Wildcats, albeit mostly their substitutes, off of the scoreboard for the final 17 minutes of the game. Penn State finished with a 14-6 record, including an upset of Florida, and fell one game short of its first NCAA semifinal appearance since 1999.

"We are a fairly young team," Doherty said. "We're really proud of the way they played all year long. They've really battled. They've gotten some great experience under their belt. They never gave up. They kept fighting the whole game. They just have great competitor qualities."

The Wildcats, meanwhile, have a chance to avenge one of their slowest starts of the season, when they take on the Tar Heels Friday night. Their contest against North Carolina will mark their ninth consecutive appearance in the NCAA semifinals.

"It's really special," Amonte Hiller said. "I think people think it's kind of automatic that we're going to go to the final four, but it's very hard to get there."


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