When Alyssa Leonard is off her game, Northwestern is in trouble.
The senior attacker has taken over the de facto on-field leadership role for the Wildcats this season, after a breakout year last year and the departure of Taylor Thornton and Erin Fitzgerald, NU’s previous all-stars.
“Alyssa is no stranger to big games,” coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said. “She’s used to this type of environment, so we can always count on her.”
That may be the case, but Leonard has been surprisingly quiet in a few games this season. In NU’s three losses, she’s averaging 1.5 goals and six draw controls. In NU’s worse loss of the season, an 11-7 defeat against Syracuse, Leonard didn’t score. Compare that to her stats in the six wins: 2.1 goals and 8 draw controls.
Admittedly, the standards for Leonard are quite a bit higher than for the average player. She’s also being double- and triple-teamed far more than she was last year, when teams had three prolific scorers to cover when playing NU.
The key to Leonard’s success this season could be teammate Kaleigh Craig. The sophomore is off to a blazing start with 19 goals this season, and if she keeps up the pace, teams will have to put more focus on her and leave more room for Leonard to work.
Luckily for the Cats, Leonard found her momentum and (literally) ran with it against the reigning NCAA champs, No. 1 North Carolina on Monday, helping NU snap the Tar Heels’ 15-game winning streak, dating back to the ACC Tournament last season.
She started out rocky, uncharacteristically losing two straight draw controls in the first few minutes, but she quickly made up for it with a point-blank goal less than three minutes into the match.
It was after North Carolina’s first goal of the game, though, that Leonard convincingly took charge. On the draw control, she swiped the ball out of the reach of UNC’s Sarah Scott, who had grabbed the first two draw controls for the Tar Heels, then scooped it up and drove straight up the field unblocked before sending a sharp pass over to teammate Kaleigh Craig.
Two minutes later, Leonard corralled a missed shot and rocketed it into the back of the net for her second goal of the day.
She finished with three goals and three draw controls.
Leonard is by no means playing poorly. But if the Cats intend to maintain their streak of long NCAA Tournament runs, Leonard will have to lead the way.