When Puck Pentenga played her final few minutes in Evanston last November, Northwestern field hockey seemed largely prepared for a rebuilding season in 2019.
Little did anybody outside the program know that redshirt first year Bente Baekers, who sat out all of last season with an injury, would step up to become the future of Wildcat field hockey, leading the team offensively and putting together an outstanding season.
Northwestern finished its 2019 campaign with a 14-8 overall record and a 5-3 Big Ten mark. The Wildcats capped off their season by advancing to the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament and earning an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2017.
Back in September, the fate of the Wildcats’ season was largely up in the air, with 11 ranked teams lined up ahead of them. However, after starting its season 2-2, Northwestern went on a tear, winning eight straight games including victories over No. 13 Boston College, No. 15 Wake Forest, No. 12 Ohio State, No. 24 Michigan State and No. 9 Michigan.
Northwestern was rolling, becoming recognized as the fifth-ranked team in the nation, and Bente Baekers was simply unstoppable. She led the nation in goals scored and points and recorded back-to-back hat tricks during the stretch.
However, things would momentarily take a turn for the worse when the Wildcats hit their toughest stretch of the season. It started with a heartbreaking 2-1 double overtime loss to Maryland, which was followed by two more regretful overtime defeats to Maine and Penn State.
At this point, team morale was low. Maine is one of the worst squads in college field hockey, and Northwestern had just played four straight overtime games, reaching a point of exhaustion.
Heading into the final stretch of the season, the postseason fate of Tracey Fuchs’ squad was on the line. The Wildcats had two ranked opponents left and two more seemingly easy wins. They would first have to travel to take on No. 19 Rutgers on the road, a game that largely turned their season back around.
Their 4-1 win over the Scarlet Knights set them up to return home and destroy Kent State 5-0 before taking on No. 8 Iowa in what was arguably the biggest game of the regular season for the Wildcats.
Northwestern put up the best fight it could against the outstanding Iowa defense, but ultimately fell 2-1. However, thanks to a decisive 6-0 win over Indiana to cap off the regular season, and necessary wins and losses from other teams around the conference, NU earned the three-seed in the Big Ten tournament and drew the six-seed Scarlet Knights as its first-round opponent.
Again, Northwestern dominated Rutgers and advanced to face the two-seed Hawkeyes in the semi-finals. Yet again, the Wildcats fell 2-1 and their dreams of a conference title were shattered by the soon to be Big Ten Champions.
From there, the fate of Northwestern’s post-season was out of its hands. The Wildcats were no longer eligible for one of ten automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament and had to rely on their regular season performance to earn one of eight at-large bids.
However, both the Big Ten and the ACC, especially, had plenty of teams deserving of one of these spots. It was just a question of whether or not Northwestern had done enough.
For the fifteenth time in program history, Northwestern was selected to compete in the NCAA Tournament as one of the nation’s top 18 teams. The Wildcats were challenged with Boston College as their first-round opponent, a team they had beaten back in September. However, the Eagles were the hottest team in college field hockey and has won eight of their last nine regular season games with the only loss coming to No. 1 UNC.
Unfortunately, the Eagles’ hot streak continued, and Northwestern fell in the first round, bringing its magical season to an end. While the year did not end the way the team may have wanted, a lot of positive takeaways come out of this season for the Wildcats, boding well for the future of the program.
The year was marked by offensive dominance. Northwestern outscored its opponents 65 to 34 over the course of the season and averaged almost three goals per game, finishing 11th in the nation in that category. Additionally, the Wildcats outnumbered their opponents 121 to 91 on penalty corners, which was a deciding stat in numerous games.
This dominance was marked by strong performances from a young core of first-year forwards. Peyton Halsey and Ana Medina Garcia were two leaders in the group who recorded three goals apiece at crucial points of the season. Halsey even earned Big Ten freshman of the week for her efforts back in September.
However, one first year rose above the rest. Bente Baekers exceeded all expectations this season and was absolutely unstoppable on offense. She single-handedly carried the team to numerous wins and played a crucial role in every Wildcat win. Baekers led the nation with 28 goals on the season and finished third in goals per game with 1.29.
She earned Big Ten Freshman of the year, was selected to the first-team all-Big Ten, earned Big Ten Freshman of the week five times throughout the season and earned Big Ten offensive player of the week once. Northwestern’s future is bright with Baekers’ long career ahead.
While the youth on the team exceeded expectations this season, strong leadership from the older offensive-leaning players was just as crucial. Senior Saar de Breij, junior Lakin Barry and sophomore Maren Seidel all had impressive seasons as forwards, scoring nine, five and six goals respectively.
On the other side of the ball, Florien Marcussen filled in nicely in Annie Kalfas’ absence, charting 14 wins on the season, allowing 33 goals and recording a .727 save percentage. Kirsten Mansfield and Kayla Blas were also two huge leaders on defense while simultaneously acting as the two assist leaders on the team. Mansfield led the pack with 17 assists and finished second in the nation with .81 assists per game.
A deciding factor of the ‘Cats’ success this season was the seven ranked wins they recorded over the course of the regular season. Those, alongside the impressive eight-game mid-season win streak, propelled the ‘Cats to a stellar post-season run and a shot at both the Big Ten and NCAA titles.
Looking ahead to next year, Northwestern loses six seniors: Erica Hootstein, Saar de Breij, Lily Gandhi, Lily Katzman, Caroline Hughes and Kirsten Mansfield. From this group, the biggest losses are de Breij’s goal-scoring abilities and the defensive presence as a whole.
De Breij finished her career with 25 goals and 10 assists and was the second-leading goal scorer this season behind Baekers. The Netherlands native’s aggression on offense and overall leadership will certainly be missed.
Northwestern’s biggest losses next year, though, come on defense. Mansfield and Gandhi have both started almost every game in their careers at back and have been central players in the defense for years now. Mansfield has additionally been a regular contributor on offense, recording 22 goals and 52 assists for 96 points in her career. That group will certainly face some rebuilding next season with the loss of these two crucial leaders.
Overall, Northwestern is on track to be a dominant force again next year, especially on offense. Baekers is young and will just keep getting better; Barry and Marcussen will step up as senior leaders, and while the team will certainly need to account for the losses on defense, the Wildcats are on the cusp of a turning point for the program with their impressive youth.
Tracey Fuchs has continually showed that her squad can compete, and we can expect nothing less from the ‘Cats in 2020.