May 13, 2010

By Amy Farnum
NCAA.com


It is Northwestern’s favorite time of year – tournament time.

The five-time defending national champions will be vying for their sixth straight NCAA women’s lacrosse title beginning with an opening round game against Notre Dame on May 15.  

The second-seeded Wildcats are 17-1 entering the 2010 NCAA Tournament – their only loss an 18-16 setback to North Carolina on April 18.  NU has won five straight since that game, including a pair of victories en route to its’ sixth consecutive American Lacrosse Conference title.

“This team was young with only five seniors, and we had quite a few young players impacting the team,” said head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller. “It’s taken the team a little while to gel, but I feel like they are really starting to come together both offensively and defensively.  They’ve had bumps in the road, whether it was personal stuff or on the field, and they’ve shown a lot of strength and a lot of caring for each other.”

Young?  Maybe.  Still a force to be reckoned with? Absolutely.  After setting an NCAA scoring record during last year’s championship run, the Wildcats are once again at the top of the national statistics this season, averaging 16.78 goals per game. Senior midfielder Katrina Dowd, one of five finalists for the 2010 Tewaaraton Award, paces the nation with 5.53 points per game.  The defense has not been too shabby either, allowing only 8.67 goals per game, the eighth-lowest in Division I.
 
And, the loss against North Carolina – only the program’s third in the last four seasons – which snapped the Wildcats’ 41-game winning streak turned out to be a learning experience.

“I think we were cutting corners up until that point in the practice setting and in games,” said Amonte Hiller.  “The coaching staff was really trying to get through to the players, but it really didn’t sink in until that loss.  Now, they understand the importance of every decision they make and that it really makes a difference.  You don’t like to lose a game, but hopefully we’ve grown from it, and it will help us on Saturday.”

On Saturday, the Wildcats will look to stretch their 20-game NCAA winning streak when they host the Irish.  Northwestern boasts an amazing postseason record under Amonte Hiller (21-1), and the senior class has never known anything other than claiming the trophy in the final game.

“We have been down this road before so we do sort of know what it takes in terms of preparation and focus and hard work,” said senior Danielle Spencer.  “We have a different edge because we’ve had success in the past and know what it feels like, and know we want to do it again.  But, other teams that haven’t had a championship – they want it.”

The Wildcats are well aware other foes are looking to knock them from the top, and are concentrating on getting past the Irish this weekend.

“It’s anyone’s ball game (in the NCAA Tournament),” said Amonte Hiller.  “It helps that they have familiarity in situations they are put in, but it doesn’t guarantee them anything.  But, they are very comfortable in pressure situations and know that everyone has to step up.”

“For the seniors, now it’s really our time in practice to put it all out there and show the younger girls that we don’t want this to be our last week of practice or our last game,” said Spencer.  “We want another week. We want to win Saturday.”

Northwestern hosts Notre Dame at Lakeside Field, where the Wildcats are 11-0 in NCAA Tournament play.  The teams are meeting for the fifth time in the last three seasons, including Northwestern’s 15-5 win over the Irish on March 30.  Game time is 1 p.m.  It will be streamed live online at NUsports.com, and then aired via tape delay on the Big Ten Network at 9:30 p.m. CT.