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No. 11 Virginia welcomes defending champ Northwestern

Marquee matchup kicks off three-game season-ending homestand; Bocklet faces former teammates

The No. 11 Virginia women’s lacrosse team finds itself in the final fortnight of its 2013 regular season, a saga of highs, lows and in-betweens spanning from mid-February. The Cavaliers (7-6, 0-4 ACC), back at home for their last three games of their regular season, face another challenge in their immediate future: a game against No. 4 Northwestern, the defending NCAA champions, set for 7 p.m. Sunday at Klöckner Stadium.

“Northwestern is always a huge matchup,” Virginia coach Julie Myers said. “They’ve only lost one game, so they come with a lot of momentum and a lot of hard work under their belt where it’s reaped the benefits of winning.”

The Wildcats (9-1, 3-0 American Lacrosse Conference) have won seven games in a row, the most recent a 13-12 victory against No. 5 Syracuse in a rematch of the 2012 NCAA title game. The team features do-everything senior midfielder Taylor Thornton, the reigning National Player of the Year, and senior midfielder and attacker Erin Fitzgerald, who joined Thornton as an All-American in 2012.

Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller, who arrived in Evanston in 2001, has guided Northwestern to a dominance of the sport which recalls that of UCLA basketball with John Wooden in the 1960s and ‘70s. The Wildcats have won seven of the past eight NCAA championships, compiling a 32-2 Tournament record in that span. Their success is all the more mind-boggling when one considers that Northwestern did not have a varsity lacrosse team in the decade before Hiller became coach.

In addition to Thornton and Fitzgerald, this Northwestern team boasts a weapon with which few opponents can cope: midfielder Alyssa Leonard, a junior who has already won the seventh-most draw controls in Division I history. Leonard’s 15 draw controls in an 11-8 loss to North Carolina Feb. 22, Northwestern’s only defeat, tied a Division I record. Her skill on the draw gives her team a decided edge in time of possession and, in turn, shots on goal.

“She has really quick hands, and she draws it straight up in the air and …gets it to herself,” Virginia sophomore midfielder Courtney Swan said. “So I think we’re going to try to get it on the ground, make it a 50-50 ball.”

Swan will be instrumental in containing Leonard. She ranks fourth in the ACC with 3.42 draw controls per game, and her six possession wins helped the Cavaliers dismantle an American University team that rolled into Tuesday the winners of five consecutive games. Strong play from Swan and fellow sophomore midfielder Morgan Stephens, who together have won 84 draw controls in 2013, is imperative to stop Northwestern from controlling Sunday’s showdown.

“I think our team has done a pretty good job of draw controls over the stretch,” Myers said. “But certainly, you know, Courtney’s going to need to make sure that she pays attention to where Leonard is trying to put the ball and really just try to put it anywhere but where Leonard wants it. And I think, then, we have a chance.”

Virginia’s chances against Northwestern will similarly depend on the play of sophomore attacker Casey Bocklet. The Cavaliers have relied on Bocklet for offense all season, and she has delivered a team-best 46 points. This game, however, will hold special meaning for Bocklet. She played for Northwestern as a freshman in 2012, recording 13 goals and 22 assists while winning an NCAA championship. Bocklet transferred to Virginia partly because of her brother Chris, who ended his Virginia career with the fifth-most goals in team history and spoke fondly of his time in Charlottesville.

As Virginia concludes its regular season at Klöckner Stadium, Myers said her players’ focus is squarely on steeling themselves for a deep postseason run. The Cavaliers played nine games in March — taking on such titans as No. 1 Maryland, No. 3 North Carolina and No. 6 Duke — and emerged with a 4-5 record. Myers sees a chance for continued growth in April.

“[It’s] hard to believe we’re already in our final stretch of the regular season,” Myers said. “We need to finish strong.”