EVANSTON, Ill. -- A college lacrosse fan's favorite month of the year has arrived, and with it comes Northwestern's upcoming trip to Baltimore to join its fellow American Lacrosse Conference competitors at the ALC Tournament, hosted by Johns Hopkins. As the No. 2 seed at the event, fourth-ranked Northwestern earned a bye to Friday night's semifinals where it will face third-seeded Penn State at 5:30 p.m. CT.
A win against the Nittany Lions would land the Wildcats in the ALC Tournament title game for the seventh time in the seven-year history of the event. The championship contest is slated for 11 a.m. CT Sunday at Homewood Field. All five games will be streamed online for free at HopkinsSports.com, with game-specific links and other information available on the official homepage of the 2013 ALC Tournament.
Fans also can stay up-to-date on the Wildcats' progress throughout the weekend by following the usernames @NULax and @NU_SportsLIVE on Twitter.
According to the Polls
Northwestern closed the regular season with eight consecutive games against teams ranked in the top 20 nationally and won seven of those outings, including four of five versus top-10 foes. The 15-2 Wildcats find themselves ranked No. 4 in the final IWLCA Coaches Poll of the regular season but No. 2 in this week's Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) computer rankings. The average RPI of the top 10-highest ranked opponents Northwestern faced this season was 8.6, the third-best behind only Virginia (6.9) and North Carolina (8.2).
ALC Tournament Refresher
The American Lacrosse Conference, now in its 12th year of existence, began hosting a conference tournament in the spring of 2007, with the winner earning an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Northwestern adapted well to the new postseason event, bringing home the trophy each of the tournament's first five years before the 2012 Florida Gators became the first team to defeat the Wildcats (11-1) in ALC Tournament history. In its five victories in the championship game, Northwestern has posted wins over Johns Hopkins (2007), Vanderbilt (2008 and 2010), Penn State (2009) and Florida (2011).
Scouting the Nittany Lions
At 12-5 overall and 4-1 in the ALC, Penn State captured a share of the regular-season conference title and posted its best record in three seasons under head coach Missy Doherty, a former college teammate of Kelly Amonte Hiller at Maryland. PSU sealed its share of the ALC crown with a gutsy 15-14 win over Johns Hopkins on April 21, but experienced a let-down as it was upset by Princeton, 14-9, in the regular-season finale on Saturday. The Nittany Lions' attack was spearheaded all year by sophomore Maggie McCormick, who notched 40 goals and 72 points, as well as Mackenzie Cyr's 26 goals and 24 assists.
Penn State advanced to the tournament semifinals thanks to a wild 16-14 victory over Vanderbilt on Thursday evening, a game in which the Nittany Lions seemed to have the game in hand with a 14-10 second-half lead before the Commodores rallied to knot the score at 14. Junior Kelly Lechner led Penn State with five goals on the evening, including the game's final goal that gave PSU a two-goal cushion with 6:52 remaining.
Northwestern's regular-season win over Penn State featured what was arguably NU's finest defensive performance of the year, limiting the Nittany Lions to three goals just five days after PSU put up 16 in handing No. 2 Florida its only loss of the season. Penn State took only 10 shots on the game -- 19 fewer than its season per-game average -- as NU held the Lions to fewer than 10 goals for the ninth consecutive meeting.
Northwestern saw 1,672 fans pack the seats at Lakeside Field during its Senior Day victory over Pennsylvania on a picture-perfect afternoon in Evanston. The figure represents the second-largest crowd at a lacrosse game since the construction of Lakeside Field prior to the 2008 season, behind only the Wildcats' April 18, 2010 matchup with North Carolina (1,705). The Wildcats drew an average attendance of 1,053 fans during its eight regular-season home games, the best per-game average in school history and once again ranking NU among the nation's attendance leaders this season.
Thornton, Fitzgerald Tabbed Tewaaraton Award Nominees
On the eve of their Senior Day outing Saturday vs. Penn, senior midfielders Erin Fitzgerald and Taylor Thornton each were named nominees for the 2013 Tewaaraton Trophy, the Tewaaraton Foundation announced Friday. The NU duo are two of 25 players from across Division I women's lacrosse to be nominated for the annual award, considered the Heisman Trophy of men's and women's lacrosse. Thornton is a returning finalist for the award who has now been on the list of 25 nominees in three consecutive years, while Fitzgerald is making her first career appearance on the pared-down list.
Leonard Sets Sights on Single-Season Draws Record
Already Northwestern's career leader in draw controls with 283, junior Alyssa Leonard is now approaching the NU record for most draw controls in a single season. Leonard enters the postseason needing only eight draw controls to match Danielle Spencer's program record of 110 established in 2010. Spencer's 110 draws as a senior (in 22 games) rank fourth in the NCAA record books while her fellow assistant coach at NU, Hillary Fratzke, owns the fifth-best single-season total of 107, a figure Fratzke achieved in only 17 games as a freshman at Towson in 2006. Maryland's Dana Dobbie set the NCAA single-season record with 126 draw controls in 2008.
As she turns down the home stretch of her senior season and Northwestern career, Taylor Thornton has made a late climb up the all-time rankings at NU in several statistical categories. Thornton has recently moved into third place on the school's career lists for both caused turnovers (91) and ground balls (169), needing 14 ground balls to match Christy Finch's all-time record of 183. Additionally, Thornton stands seventh in career draw controls (187) and could conceivably climb has high as third with a strong finish on the circle in the postseason.
Fitzgerald Still Streaking
Senior attacker Erin Fitzgerald has cemented herself as one of the nation's top offensive performers, beginning the week ranked seventh in the country with 3.24 goals per game and adding another four-goal game during her Senior Day performance vs Penn. Fitzgerald has scored at least one goal in every game this year, in 20 straight dating back to last season and in 49 of her last 50 games, recently reaching the 200-career points plateau and moving past Hannah Nielsen into ninth on Northwestern's career goals list (186).
Junior attacker Kelly Rich closed the regular season in much the same way she began it, netting a hat trick against Penn for her first multi-goal performance since scoring four goals vs. Massachusetts in the season-opener. Rich finished with 15 goals in the regular season, including scores in four of NU's last six games.
On Sunday evening, Northwestern will learn its place in the newly expanded 26-team NCAA Tournament field when the bracket is announced. In the new format, first and second-round games of the Tournament will be held at the campus sites of each of the eight seeded teams, with the top six seeds earning a bye into the second round. Those top six schools will host neutral-site games on Friday, May 10, and face the winner in a second-round matchup on Friday, May 12. Quarterfinal games will again take place on campus sites on either May 18 or 19, with the four winners advancing to the NCAA Women's Lacrosse Championship at Villanova Stadium in Philadelphia (May 24-26). For more information, visit the official home of the NCAA Championship at NCAA.com.