Northwestern Lacrosse: ALC tournament preview

[UPDATE 2: And it's Northwestern vs. Florida in the ALC championship game for the second year in a row. Game time is at 11;30 a.m. CT Saturday. In the semifinals, NU beat Johns Hopkins, 13-9, behind Shannon Smith's 4 goals. The Wildcats got off to a slow start that has been characteristic of this season, getting down 3-1, but recovered with a 5-0 run to take control. Florida, meanwhile, squeaked past Ohio State, 5-4. The Gators went up 5-3 with 10:30 left and then survived an Ohio State rally, as the Buckeyes missed two free position shots and had a third shot hit the post in the final 5:42 of the game. Ohio State did score with 7 seconds left to make the final margin one goal.]

[UPDATE: Northwestern will face Johns Hopkins in the semifinals on Friday. Game time is 3:30 p.m. CT. JHU, the No. 6 seed, upset No. 3 seed Penn State, 13-12, in their first round matchup. NU beat JHU, 16-12, at home in the team's regular season meeting.]

Regular season formalities have concluded for our No. 1 Wildcats, and now the real season begins, first with the American Lacrosse Conference tournament starting today in Gainesville, Fla., (games streamed live for free on GatorVision), and then the NCAA tournament starting next weekend.

Northwestern went 16-1 in the regular season, the lone loss to fellow ALC member Florida two weekends ago, but the Wildcats were able to bounce back in their final two matches, easily beating No. 6 Notre Dame and No. 9 Virginia.

But the loss to Florida means NU will be entering the ALC tournament as the No. 2 seed, just as they were last year, when they ended up beating the Gators in the final to nab the ALC's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

The ALC coaches held a conference call with the media earlier this week, and everybody talked about just how competitive top to bottom the ALC is this year. Five out of the six teams in the league are ranked in the top 20, led by No. 1 NU, followed by No. 3 Florida, No. 11 Penn State, No. 14 Ohio State and No. 19 Johns Hopkins. The only conference team that's not ranked, Vanderbilt, sits just outside the top 20, and the Commodores can't be dismissed, seeing as how they upset No. 4 Duke earlier this year and also have quality wins over JHU and No. 18 Boston College.

The ALC used to be pretty much Northwestern at the top and then a bunch of middle-tier teams, but no more, as the league is now among the deepest in the country, rivaling the traditional powerhouse conferences, the ACC and Big East.

"It's pretty exciting to see the talent level in our conference," said NU head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller, who on Wednesday was named ALC coach of the year. "Any given team in the conference could win any game on any given day. Seeing Vanderbilt upset Duke, Florida upset us, and we went to overtime with [Ohio State]. Just to see the upsets across the country, it's really cool. We're really rooting for our conference, and we hope we get quite a few teams in the NCAA tournament this year. I think our conference deserves it."

As the top two seeds, Florida and Northwestern have first round byes and get the day off Thursday. On Friday, Northwestern will play the winner of the Penn State/Johns Hopkins game, while Florida plays the winner of Vanderbilt/Ohio State. The championship game is Saturday.

Parity aside, there's no doubt that NU and Florida come in as the heavy favorites. NU's got history on its side as the five-time defending ALC tournament champions, not to mention the No. 1 ranking in the polls. But Florida, in dealing the Wildcats their only loss of the season, has beaten NU in back to back seasons now. The Gators will also have home field advantage, as hosts of the conference tournament.

Both teams are very solid on both sides of the ball. Florida has the No. 2 scoring offense; NU is No. 11. Florida also boasts the No. 1 stingiest defense; NU is tied for No. 2.

"They're both very well coached teams, with a lot of team speed and athleticism that they use very well," JHU head coach Janine Tucker said. "Florida tries to push the ball. Northwestern rotates a lot of players in and out. They wear you down, and they've really maximized their personnel."

The last two games between NU and Florida have been one-goal affairs, with the Gators winning 8-7 on April 21 and NU winning, 10-9, in last year's ALC tournament championship. The game before that, won by Florida during the 2011 regular season, was another close match, 13-11. Suffice to say, the two teams have developed a healthy rivalry.

"Any time that you have tight games with someone, back and forth wins and losses, it becomes a rivalry for your team," Amonte Hiller said. "I'd say that Florida would say it's equally as much a rivalry for them. It makes the conference games that much more exciting. Florida is a great opponent."

But first things first, she added. NU will have to get by its semifinal game, and "we're just really focusing right now on that."

With temperatures forecasted to top 90 degrees this weekend in Gainesville, expect the weather to impact the tournament. NU is used to playing in cold, windy and sometimes snowy conditions at Lakeside Field, so adjusting to the hot, muggy conditions will be key. As Tucker said, "They don't call it The Swamp for nothing."

Amonte Hiller does like to substitute a lot, which will help keep the Wildcats' legs fresh. She said the staff will make sure the players stay well hydrated.

"We've played Friday/Sunday games against multiple tough opponents," she said. "Hopefully that preparation will help us leading into the weekend."

As for the Gators, bring on the heat, said head coach Mandee O'Leary.

"We're hoping for the hotter the better," she said. "It is what it is down here. The ability to play in these conditions gives us a home field advantage. We're hoping the heat and humidity will help us."

***

Some other notes and miscellany-

-- In addition to Amonte Hiller's Coach of the Year award, the ALC on Wednesday also named Taylor Thornton its Player of the Year. The two-way defender scored a career-high 24 goals on the season, including two game winners, along with 42 ground ball controls and 56 draw controls, making her one of the best all-around players in the country.

In fact, Ohio State head coach Alexis Venachanos declared Thornton "definitely the most explosive player in Division 1 right now."

"She's proven, especially in our game against her, her ability to get the ball off the draw," Venachanos said. "It's like when you have a great center in basketball, and you have nobody to outjump her. She's so naturally athletic, she's able to stop the attacker on defense, bring up the ball on attack. She's definitely someone you have to stop with multiple players."

Perhaps most scary for opposing teams next year is that Venachanos said Thornton, a junior who has started ever game at NU in her career and was a Tewaaraton Trophy nominee last season, has yet to hit her ceiling as a player.

"I still don't think she's reached her peak, meaning that level of being maybe a little more finesse in the attacking end," said Venachanos, a former NU assistant from 2004-06. "She's definitely explosive and powerful."

-- The ALC also named senior attack Shannon Smith and junior attack Erin Fitzgerald to its first-team, along with Thornton. Senior defenders Alex Frank and Lacey Vigmostad were named to the second team.

--Smith could break the Wildcat career goals records this weekend, as she needs just seven to beat Kristen Kjellman's mark of 244. Smith is also third on NU's career assists list, with 100, and needs six points to surpass Kjellman for second on the all-time points list.

Smith, who won the Tewaaraton Trophy last year, currently leads the team with 56 goals and 20 assists. Despite seeing tight marking this year after her NU record-setting 86-goal season in 2011, Smith still ranks 13th in the NCAA in goals per game, at 3.29.

She also ranks ninth all-time in NCAA history for career points (344) and 12th in career goals.

--Junior midfielder Gabriella Flibotte has turned up her game recently for the Wildcats, scoring a key goal against Virginia and also recording 15 draw controls, 10 ground balls and four caused turnovers in the last four games.

"She has been just a real force for us," Amonte Hiller said. "She does a lot for us between the lines. She is playing great defensively and given us a spark on our transition offense."

The coach also singled out Vigmostad for her strong two-way play, and Frank and Christy Turner for their defensive poise.

"In order to be successful, you need a lot of players that impact," Amonte Hiller said. "We feel that we can go to numerous players on any given day and really have them step up. It's exciting to have that."

--Florida's presence among lacrosse royalty, in just the program's third year of existence, mirrors the quick rise that Northwestern experienced under Amonte Hiller. But there are a few differences.

Amonte Hiller was an unproven commodity as a coach -- NU is her first head coaching gig -- when she was hired to resuscitate the Wildcats' program in 2001, while O'Leary had a successful 14-year tenure as Yale head coach before taking over the Gators in 2007. O'Leary also had two full seasons to recruit before the Gators began official varsity play in 2010, while Amonte Hiller had one.

But the two programs do share the distinction of being lacrosse powers in non-traditional areas.

"Really, building the culture was the main thing," Amonte Hiller said of her experience at NU. "Mandee, I haven't spoken to her about it, but from the outside, that's been real important to her, and she's done a great job with that clearly. You can see the results on the field. She's just done a fantastic job, and to see how quickly they've really been just dominant, it's really cool for lacrosse in general just to see the spread of the game, to see teams like Northwestern and Florida outside the traditional lacrosse beds."

--Amonte Hiller has built a reputation as one of the best game-planners in the sport, but if there were any lessons she and her coaching staff took away from the Wildcats' loss to Florida earlier this year, she wasn't revealing them.

O'Leary, however, said she expects some new wrinkles to NU's approach if there is a rematch in the ALC tournament finals.

"I just think with Kelly, she's just such an excellent excellent coach, you never know," the Florida coach said. "You kinda know what she's going to do, but there's always that ‘if' factor. Who is she going to put the faceguard on? Is she going to faceguard somebody? Kelly definitely keeps opposing coaches on their toes, because she's developed such excellent game plans."

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