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Fall sports: Field hockey

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We continue our weekly look at NU's nonrevenue fall sports, this time giving our field hockey team its turn in the spotlight.

NU's field hockey program was going nowhere, spending a decade in the Big Ten cellar, until in 2009, athletic director Jim Phillips made a huge splash by hiring Tracey Fuchs as the new head coach. Just as the women's lacrosse program is led by arguably the best player in the history of the sport, Kelly Amonte-Hiller, the field hockey team is now coached by the biggest figure in its sport, as Fuchs is a two-time Olympian and served as captain of the US national team for 14 years.

Fuchs has wasted no time in turning the program around, posting back-to-back winning seasons in her first two years, the first time NU has had consecutive winning seasons since 1994-95. The team came close to an NCAA tournament berth last year and got ranked for the first time since 2004, and the Wildcats hope to build on that success this season. There's still a long ways to go before the program approaches its halycon happy super-duper fun-time days of the '80s, when the Wildcats were winning Big Ten titles with regularity, but with Fuchs at the helm, brighter days appear ahead.

Hit the jump for a closer look at this year's team.

How’s the team doing so far? NU’s most recent game was on Sunday, a 2-1 loss to No. 17 Albany on a last-minute goal, dropping the Wildcats to 3-1 on the season. The Wildcats opened the season with two straight 4-0 shutouts on the road over Kent State and Miami of Ohio, and then beat VCU, 2-1, in the home opener. A tough roadtrip looms ahead, as NU travels to No. 3 Maryland on Saturday, and then No. 8 American on Sunday.

In the most recent NFHCA coaches poll, released Tuesday, NU got the fifth most votes of the teams ranked outside the top 20, unofficially putting them 25th in the nation. Four other Big Ten teams are ranked in the top 20, led by No. 6 Penn State.

How does the sport work? The Big Ten has seven field hockey-playing members: Northwestern, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State. All seven make the Big Ten tournament, with the regular season champion earning a first round bye. Winner of the conference tournament gets the Big Ten’s automatic bid to the 16-team NCAA tournament. Last year, that was Michigan, with three other teams (Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State) qualifying as at-large bids.

The ACC, Big Ten and Big East are the top conferences, with several smaller East Coast schools, such as Princeton, UMass, Albany and American, also having strong programs. Maryland is the defending champ; Ohio State was the top Big Ten finisher, losing in the semifinals to Maryland.

How did they do last year? The Wildcats finished 11-9, 3-3 in the Big Ten, good for fifth place. It was the second consecutive winning record for NU, the first time that has happened since 1994-95, and the three Big Ten wins were a program best since the conference went to a single round-robin regular season format. The Wildcats started off the year 3-3, then rattled off seven wins in eight games, to put themselves in contention for an NCAA tournament berth, but losses in five of their last six games burst their tourney bubble.

Then-sophomore forward/midfielder Chelsea Armstrong was named a second-team All-American and Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, leading the Big Ten in goals (24), points (60), shots (125) and points per game (3.16). The points per game mark ranked third nationally.

What’s the historical context? NU had a stellar field hockey program in the '80s and early '90s, winning Big Ten titles in 1983, 1984, 1985, 1988 and 1994, and making the NCAA tournament every year but one from 1983-1994. Since then, though, it's been mostly lackluster. The program really hit rock bottom during the 10 years from 1999 through 2008, going a craptacular 8-56 in Big Ten play.

But with Fuchs taking the helm in 2009, the Wildcats are back to being a competitive program and with a few more recruiting classes under her belt, she may return the program to elite status. Fuchs' first year in 2009 produced a not-so-stellar 1-5 Big Ten record, but the overall record of 12-8 was NU's first winning season since 1995. NU then followed up last season with a second consecutive winning season, and a 3-3 record in Big Ten play.

What’s the outlook this year? Expectations are definitely rising for the Wildcats, as NU received 84 votes in the National Field Hockey Coaches Association preseason poll, second most among teams outside the top 20. But this is still a program that’s building, as Fuchs has a pretty young roster this season, regularly starting seven freshmen and sophomores. The Big Ten will once again be a tough challenge, with four teams ranked in the preseason top 20.

Still, NU does return eight starters from last year’s team, including Chelsea Armstrong, who entered the season just 13 goals shy of holding the NU goal-scoring record. She's off to a strong start with 6 goals in the team’s first four games.  Forwards Nikki Parsley and Regan Mooney, who ranked second and third, respectively, on the team in goals, will help Armstrong lead the offense. Both have already notched two goals on the year.

The midfield is led by Kelsey Thompson, who redshirted as a freshman last year, and Catherine Franklin, while the defense is led by Jaimie OrricoMegan Jamieson and Julia Retzky. Freshman goalkeeper Maddy Carpenter appears to have won the starting role.

The schedule does the ‘Cats no favors, as 9 out of the 20 games will be against teams ranked in the preseason top 20, including Saturday’s against defending national champion Maryland, which started out the season ranked No. 1.

Who are the coaches? Head coach Tracey Fuchs, as I said, is a legend in field hockey. The 1988 Connecticut graduate, who was a three-time All-American, has played in more international matches for the US national team than any other player, racking up 69 goals throughout her 17-year national team career. In addition to her NU coaching duties, she also serves as an assistant coach on the US national team, as well as on the  under-17 squad.

Fuchs began her coaching career as an assistant at Connecticut, before moving on to another assistant coaching gig at Michigan in 1996. There, she helped the Wolverines qualify for the NCAA tournament for the first time in 1999, winning the NCAA title two years later in 2001. NU is her first head coaching job.

Ali Johnstone and Zoe Almquist are in their first seasons as assistant coaches. Johnstone previously was an assistant coach at Ohio University, while Almquist just graduated from NU, having served as team captain her senior year and started 60 games in her NU career.