Thornton gives NU women's lacrosse best of both worlds

Last season's national defensive player of year has extended her talents to offense as well

There are times when Northwestern women's lacrosse coach Kelly Amonte Hiller must want to say the heck with Solomonic wisdom and split Taylor Thornton in two so one half could play offense and the other half defense.

"Whichever half Kelly doesn't want, you can send down here to me," said Amanda O'Leary, coach of top-ranked Florida. "She is such a dominant force at both ends."

Thornton, a junior from Dallas, was Division I defensive player of the year last season. She was named both American Lacrosse Conference player of the year and one of five finalists for the Tewaaraton Award as national player of the year this season when Amonte Hiller has used her extensively on offense.  Friday, womenslax.com named Thornton its national player of the year.

"She is the most explosive player in Division I right now," Ohio State coach Alexis Venechanos said.

Thornton is becoming one of the best two-way players in women's lacrosse history and could be just the second primarily defensive player to win the Tewaaraton, after Princeton's Rachael Becker in 2003.

"If you are going to talk about the best of the best, (Thornton) certainly is on that list," O'Leary said.

Thornton is so good at both scoring and stopping goals, so fast and skilled, that it often seems she is in two places at once.

Thornton may need to turn that illusion into virtual reality if the No. 2 Wildcats are to beat No. 3 Maryland in Friday's NCAA semifinals at Stony Brook. N.Y. Florida plays No. 4 Syracuse in the other semifinal.

"She is super fun to watch and obviously someone who can make a big difference in a game," Maryland coach Cathy Reese said.

Thornton has scored 30 goals on just 46 shots, a .652 shooting percentage. The Wildcats' top two scorers, Shannon Smith (64 goals) and Erin Fitzgerald (53), have shooting percentages of .516 and .486, respectively.

She leads the defending NCAA champion Wildcats in ground balls recovered, is second on the team in draw controls and third in caused turnovers.

"Taylor has been able to do pretty much everything for us on the field," Amonte Hiller said. "In our game planning, she is the center of conversations.

"She also is a crowd-pleaser. That is what sets her apart."

Thornton draws oohs and aahs with her ability to run past one defender after another, often after she has checked the ball free from an opponent and scooped up the loose ball. Last year against North Carolina, she scored the winning goal in overtime by bursting to the net from 30 yards away, cutting right past two defenders, then spinning left before firing the ball home.

"What makes a skilled lacrosse player isn't just someone who can score 50 goals," Thornton said. "It is just as exciting when you are athletic enough to be able to stop someone, strip the ball and push it up (the field).

"I have no preference between offense and defense. It's more fun that I can be very effective and dominant on both ends. But if I had to pick one, it would be defense."

Thornton scored just 19 goals her first two years at Northwestern. Amonte Hiller told her at the end of 2011 to prepare for more time in the offensive zone this season, when she moved onto a midfield line.

"We give her the freedom to make decisions on how much she can do and when she needs to rest," Amonte Hiller said. "She has gained so much confidence offensively we try to play her there as much as possible, but she still has the personality of a defender."

This is one case where a split personality is perfectly in order.

phersh@tribune.com

Twitter @olyphil
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