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Spring sports: Lacrosse

NU begins its 2012 season by taking on No. 6 Stanford tonight in Palo Alto, a tough opening match-up. Game time is at 9 p.m. CT, and there isn't any broadcast that I could find. Stanford will be hard to beat on their home turf, where they haven't lost in 22 consecutive games. Last year, the Cardinal lost by just one to NU in Evanston, on a game-winning goal by Alex Frank with just 23 seconds left.

The Wildcats are ranked No. 1 in the IWLCA preseason coaches poll and there's no reason to believe they won't be in the Final Four again this year, with 10 out of 12 returning starters, the biggest of which is reigning Tewaaraton Trophy winner Shannon Smith.

The schedule, as always, is challenging. After Stanford, NU heads down to Durham to play No. 4 Duke on Feb. 19. Then comes a road game at No. 12 Syracuse on Feb. 29, before the Wildcats make their home debut on March 3 against Oregon. A March 31 match against Ohio State at Gillete Stadium in Massachusetts, home of the New England Patriots, highlights the schedule.

The back end of the schedule looks especially tough, with April games against No. 17 Penn State, No. 11 Penn, No. 3 North Carolina, No. 4 Florida, No. 20 Notre Dame and No. 10 Virginia. Assuming the Wildcats take care of business, that challenging stretch should set them up nicely for the NCAA tournament.

Without further ado, let's take a closer look at the sport and the team.

How does the sport work? There are just over 90 schools in the NCAA that sponsor Division 1 women's lacrosse. The Big Ten does not sponsor lacrosse, at least not yet, but there are three Big Ten schools that have teams: NU (duh), Ohio State and Penn State. All three play in the American Lacrosse Conference, along with Florida, Johns Hopkins and Vanderbilt. Next season, Michigan will become the fourth Big Ten squad to join the ALC, as it elevates its club program to varsity.

The top conferences in women's lacrosse include the ALC, the ACC, the Big East, the Ivy League and, to a lesser extent, the Colonial Athletic Association. All of those, except for the ALC, are based on the East Coast, the sport's hot bed. The ALC and ACC have been dominant most recently.

Sixteen teams qualify for the NCAA tournament, including the conference tournament winners of each league. The Final Four will be in Stony Brook, NY, on May 25 and 27.

How did they do last year? Champs, baby! Coming off a year in which they hadn't won a title for the first time in five years, lots of people were wondering whether the Wildcat dynasty was over. Not so fast.

But it wasn't easy. NU notably endured a two-game losing streak midway through the season, dropping games to ALC foes Florida and Johns Hopkins, which earned the team a chewing out from coach Kelly Amonte Hiller and also cost the team the ALC regular season title. They made up for it in the ALC tournament, though, squeaking past Florida, 10-9, in the final.

Then it was on to the NCAA tournament, where NU dispatched its first two opponents with ease. In the semifinal, NU got past No. 3 North Carolina, 11-10, then battled No. 1 Maryland in a back and forth final, before emerging with the 8-7 win and the program's sixth national title.

What's the historical context? Unless you have lived in a cave the last seven years, you are probably aware that NU is a juggernaut in the sport. What Kelly Amonte Hiller has done in her tenure is nothing short of amazing. NU had a pretty decent varsity lacrosse program from 1983-1991, but it got cut due to budget issues. In 2000, then-AD Rick Taylor announced the sport's return, and Amonte Hiller, a star player in college at Maryland in the mid-1990s who had no head coaching experience, was hired to lead the resuscitation.

Amonte Hiller steadily built the program her first few years, at one point recruiting girls she saw playing intramural flag football, and the results soon bore fruit. In 2005, the team won its first national championship. The lacrosse world hasn't been the same since. The Midwest was hardly a lacrosse hotbed until Amonte Hiller showed up, but now high school programs are popping up everywhere in the region. Michigan, as I noted above, is now adding women's lacrosse as a varsity program.

So yeah, in a nutshell, NU expects to be competing for a national title every year.

What's the outlook this year? The Wildcats boast a veteran squad, losing just midfielder Brooke Matthews (25 goals, 7 assists) and defender Colleen Magarity from the starting lineup to graduation, so this should be another championship-caliber team.

Of course, there's not much separating the top four or five teams in the nation, so it won't be a total cakewalk. Maryland, which was ranked No. 1 all of last season until being "upset" by No. 2 Northwestern in the finals, pretty much reloads every year, though they did lose a few key players to graduation. As the No. 2 ranked team in the preseason, they'll be looking for their revenge in the NCAA tournament, since NU and Maryland won't play during the regular season.

No. 3 North Carolina, No. 4 Florida, which beat NU last year during the regular season, and No. 5 Duke aren't far behind, though Duke just lost All-American Kat Thomas indefinitely to foot surgery. All three of those teams are on NU's schedule.

In the ALC, Florida is obviously the Wildcats' biggest obstacle to the conference title. But Penn State, Ohio State and Vanderbilt are all ranked in the top 20, and Johns Hopkins, which beat NU last year, is receiving votes, so there isn't any game you can take for granted in the ALC.

Looking at the Wildcats individually, NU will once again be led by Shannon Smith, who led the NCAA with 128 points last year and set an NU record for goals in a season, with 86. Her scoring represented 27% of NU's offense.

But NU is far from a one-woman squad. 2011 IWLCA Defender of the Year Taylor Thornton, a junior, returns with her blazing speed and slick moves. Thornton is such an athlete that she could be a star at any position, but so far, Amonte Hiller has used her as a lock-down defender. All-American Alex Frank, who teamed with 2011 ALC Rookie of the Year Alyssa Leonard to make the Wildcats almost automatic on draws, returns to the midfield, and Breezy LoManto, who has compiled a 45-4 career record, will man the pipes for her third straight year.

Helping out with the scoring will be juniors Erin Fitzgerald, who was second on the team last year with 40 goals, and Amanda Macaluso (25 goals), and senior Jessica Russo (23 goals). Sophomores Kara Mupo (22 goals) and Kelly Rich (20 goals) will also look to build on their solid freshman years.

On defense, besides Thornton and Leonard, senior Lacey Vigmostad will provide leadership, and sophomore Christy Turner will also get lots of time.

A couple of freshmen to watch: high school All-American midfielder/attack Casey Bocklet, who scored three goals in an exhibition win against Team England, and fellow high school All-American goalkeeper Bridget Bianco, who likely will apprentice under LoManto her first year.

Who are the coaches? Kelly Amonte Hiller, whose brother Tony was a long-time Chicago Blackhawk, was the 1995 and 1996 NCAA Division 1 Lacrosse Player of the Year, when she led Maryland to back-to-back national titles. She ended her career as the program's all-time record holder in goals, assists and points, and after graduation, she continued to play for the US National Team, winning World Cup titles in 1997 and 2001, with a second-place finish in 2005. Suffice it to say, she's a legend in women's lacrosse circles.

After graduating from Maryland, she served as an assistant coach at Brown, UMass and Boston University, before being hired in 2001 to restore the NU program. As the NU head coach, she has mentored several players who have become Division 1 coaches themselves, highlighted by UMass head coach Angela McMahon and Southern California head coach Lindsey Munday. Also, former NU assistant coaches Alexis Venechanos is now the head coach at Ohio State and Acacia Walker is now leading Boston College.

NU alum Ann Elliot, who graduated in 2007, serves as the team's associate head coach. Hillary Fratzke, a 2010 Towson grad, is the other assistant coach, while Amonte Hiller's husband, Scott Hiller, a former pro lacrosse player, is a volunteer assistant.