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Women’s Lacrosse: Leading between the pipes

Matthew DeFranks | Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Irish junior goalkeeper Ellie Hilling had never played goalkeeper before. But in fifth grade, when the starter could not play, Hilling was thrust into the net – and she hasn’t left since.

The Rochester, N.Y., native has led the No. 6 Irish to wins in their last four games, including a 7-6 double-overtime decision against No. 16 Georgetown on Saturday. Hilling racked up a career-high 16 saves in the win.

“I’m thrilled with Ellie’s performance,” Irish coach Christine Halfpenny said. “I think the leadership she’s commanding back there is doing great things for our defense. The defense they’re putting in front of her is obviously helping her tremendously also. We hope to see more of that.”

The Brighton High School product has helped Notre Dame (12-2, 5-2 Big East) to a 4-0 record in games decided by two goals or less. She said staying calm is one of her strengths.

“I think I’m pretty good under pressure,” Hilling said. “No matter if we’re down a couple of goals or if we’re in sudden-death overtime, I feel like I’m pretty good at staying composed.”

The junior sociology major leads the Big East in saves per game (9.38) and ranks second in save percentage (.473). Additionally, she allows only 10.57 goals per game, good for fourth-best in the conference.

“I’m more confident in our defense so I don’t have to really worry about them making the right slides as much or covering the right person all the time. I’m just able to focus on the ball,” Hilling said.

On Monday, Hilling was named to the Big East Weekly Honor Roll, her second weekly award of the season. Following a 16-save performance against No. 12 Ohio State earlier this season, Hilling was named the Big East Defensive Player of the Week.

“[The awards are] always nice to get but if our defense isn’t playing as well in front of me, I don’t know if I would have made that many saves,” Hilling said. “It kind of goes to the defense too.”

Hilling – who has started 50 of 51 games since arriving on campus – said the experience of starting as a freshman has helped her tremendously during her stellar junior campaign.

“The past two years, I was an underclassman so I didn’t talk as much on defense and didn’t take as much of a leadership role,” Hilling said. “I’m more comfortable, I don’t get as nervous as I used to. I’m just more confident and more talkative.”

Halfpenny said Hilling has adjusted well to the new defensive schemes after playing two seasons under former Irish coach Tracy Coyne.

“She’s just been building,” Halfpenny said. “I feel like she got comfortable within our defenses, which are very different than what she’s played in the last two years. Once she got comfortable in that, I think her lacrosse IQ went up.”

On April 7, hours before a home contest with Villanova, Hilling was forced out of the Irish lineup with an illness. In Hilling’s stead, freshman goalkeeper Allie Murray recorded her first career start in Notre Dame’s 18-5 win. Halfpenny said the missed start was beneficial for Hilling.

“It was a blessing in disguise when she got sick and had to sit out a game,” Halfpenny said. “She got to actually watch it from the stands, something she hasn’t done [in a long time]. It gives you a little different perspective.

“She was able to come in and she’s been playing with such a clear head, on a great angle, attacking the ball with her hands. Obviously, this is what you want when you’re coaching all year, you hope you peak at the right time. I think that’s what we’re starting to see right now.”

Hilling will hope to maintain her high level of play when the Irish visit No. 1 Northwestern in Evanston, Ill., on Wednesday for Notre Dame’s second-to-last game of the season.

Contact Matthew DeFranks at mdefrank@nd.edu