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Lacrosse season guide: who, what and when to watch

Football is long over, and basketball is, for all intents and purposes, basically over for Northwestern, which can only mean one thing: lacrosse season is here. No. 4 Northwestern is, as always, a title favorite, though this year differs slightly than those in recent memory, in that the team doesn't have a standout superstar like Taylor Thornton or Erin Fitzgerald of years' past. But if early returns are any indication, this season will not disappoint. Catch up on what you've missed so far and read up on what's ahead for the lax Cats.

What's happened so far
NU dove head first into its schedule, facing No. 8 Virginia and No. 5 Duke to kick off the season. The Cats just barely pulled out victories, winning by one in each game. Goalkeeper Bridget Bianco saved the day against Virginia with 13 stops, one shy of the school record. Against Duke, sophomore Kaleigh Craig notched four goals while senior Kat DeRonda recorded a hat trick as the Cats used a late 4-0 run to overcome the Blue Devils.

The third match wasn’t nearly as close, as the Cats dominated Marquette, who is only in its second season as an NCAA program. With the lopsided 20-5 score, 33 of the 35 players on NU’s roster saw playing time, and 15 of them scored. Read our recap of that game here.

Who to watch
Alyssa Leonard is the closest thing this team has to a superstar. She had a breakout season last year with 37 goals, and her offense will be needed again this season with Thornton and Fitzgerald gone. But her greatest strength is at center field: she broke the NU season record for draw controls last year while also surpassing NU's career record for draw controls, and she'll keep adding to that record in her senior season. She's already second in the country with 32 (32!) draw controls through three games this year.

Sophomore Kaleigh Craig showed signs of excellence last year, but she struggled to get a lot of playing time with so much talent in the midfield. With Thornton gone, she's taken over a starting role and she's already made an impact: six goals and an assist in three games this year. Her biggest asset is her natural speed, and as only a sophomore, she has plenty of time to further develop the technical aspects of the position.

Big games
Ohio State (March 9): With the new Big Ten conference beginning next year, the Cats and Buckeyes have a chance to start an exciting rivalry in the coming years. They’ve already set the groundwork with some intense matchups in the last few years: NU has won the last three meetings, but only by a combined total of five goals, including a 13-12 overtime victory in 2012. With the westward movement of lacrosse, Ohio State has gotten some top talent lately and it’s only going to get better with the brand recognition of the Big Ten behind it.

No. 1 North Carolina (March 30): The Tar Heels did what many thought was impossible: they stopped NU from going to the NCAA Championship game last year, the first time in 10 years that the Cats hadn’t made it to the title game. North Carolina went on to win the championship and right now they are the unanimous No. 1. The game this year will be played in Evanston, and there’s a good chance North Carolina will be undefeated coming in to the match. If there’s one game to watch this season, it’s this one.

No. 7 Florida (April 19): The Gators are the only team besides Northwestern to win the ALC Conference Tournament since it started in 2007. The two teams always put on a great game—the Gators actually lead the series 4-3, and Florida dominated the regular season match last year, winning 22-4. This year’s match is the Cats final conference game of the season, so it could be for the ALC title.

Expectations
This is absolutely a team that can win a title. But without a dual threat like Thornton to fall back on, they’ll have to get contributions from a lot of different people.

"We're taking a holistic approach to it. We really trying to gel as a team and have a lot of weapons from top to bottom," coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said. "Anyone could come off the bench and make an impact and that's really been our focus. This team is really committed to being a great team and on any given day, anyone can step up—(we have) that kind of mentality."

The Cats are hosting the last-ever ALC tournament this year, so the homefield advantage could give them a good seeding for the NCAA tournament. But that’s looking a bit too far ahead: their biggest obstacle will be getting past North Carolina—one of only two teams to ever beat Kelly Amonte Hiller more than twice in her career as NU’s coach.

For the past decade, NU has always had someone step up and take control of the leadership role. This year, it’s not yet clear who will do that, if anyone. Can the team win without a clear leader? An Amonte Hiller-led team rarely disappoints, so chances are, they’ll find a way.