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Northwestern field hockey falls in opener to top-ranked UConn

The Wildcats took an early lead but couldn’t hold on against the reigning national champs

Northwestern field hockey fell to No. 1 UConn, the reigning national champions, 4-2 on Friday afternoon. The No. 12 Wildcats knew the competition would be tough but securing a win against the No. 1 team in the nation would boost their confidence and set the tone for the rest of the season.

The story of this game was penalty corners, which ultimately decided the contest. Northwestern and UConn finished last season ranked third and fourth, respectively, in corners per game, both averaging upwards of eight corners. With all major players on the corner unit returning for the Wildcats this season, they had confidence and knew they would have to exploit their experience to take down the Huskies. A total of 18 penalty corners were played, and all six goals came off corner shots, but in a game decided by penalties, Northwestern’s 5 corners were no match for UConn’s 13.

Northwestern came out strong, commanding a 1-0 lead. Last year’s point leader Puck Pentenga started off her senior year with her 17th career goal off a penalty corner, allowing the Wildcats to take a surprising early lead over the Huskies.

UConn was quick to respond with penalty corner goal off a deflection from sophomore Jessica Dembrowski, tying the match at one. They were then able to command the lead soon after a miscue from goal keeper Florien Marcussen, leading to a close-range deflection from Karo Kueskes.

Heading into the second half, UConn had the momentum and the 2-1 lead, but the Wildcats came out fired up and immediately tied the game 2-2 with a flawless weak side corner shot from senior Charlotte Vaziri.

With the game tied up, the Huskies took matters into their own hands. Dembrowski and Kueskes each scored a second goal of the day off penalty corners, extending the margin to two without enough time for the Wildcats to answer.

While they started off strong, the Wildcats began to falter, and the Huskies improved as the game went on, dominating the pace, possession and momentum for the duration of the second half. Their persistence after each Northwestern goal was what ultimately secured them the win, as their aggressive play was too much for the Wildcats to match.

Head coach Tracy Fuchs was proud of the effort her team put in, including both goalies Florien Marcussen and Annie Kalfas. At halftime, she remarked that defensive corners were the primary fault of the team that needed to be addressed and that they needed to be more aggressive to relieve the pressure on the goalies.

“We need more opportunities on the other side to help her,” she said, referring to Marcussen, who had 3 saves during her half of play.

Defense and lack of aggression both hurt the Wildcats ultimately. Allowing thirteen corners and only having five on their own is inconsistent with last year’s stats and put a lot of pressure on both goalies, especially Marcussen who had only her fifth start ever in the season-opener. Also, UConn started goalie Cheyenne Sprecher in her first career start. Sprecher only faced 9 shots had had 4 saves. Being aggressive against an inexperienced goalie was crucial to the Wildcats success, but their inability to possess the ball prevented offensive domination.

While the loss was not how the Wildcats hoped to begin their season, a lot of positive can be taken away. Being able to open the season leading the No. 1 team in the nation is something to be proud of. Many Wildcats had strong performances including Pentenga (1 goal, 4 shots) and Kristen Mansfield (2 assists). They also held the number one team in the nation to 4 goals, which is lower than their season average of 4.39 goals last year.

Coming off a 15-win season, expectations are high for Northwestern. Last year, they won their first NCAA tournament game since 1994, defeated eight ranked teams, finished eighth overall, were undefeated at home and returned 18 players, including four of their top five goal scorers and all three goalies. A setback in the first game doesn’t change those expectations, especially because UConn beat NU 7-0 last year en route to a perfect 23-0 season.

The Wildcats will go on to face Stanford at home on Sunday at 1 p.m. in the second of two games in the Wildcat Classic.