And that’s a wrap for your 7-9-1 (3-6-1 B1G) Wildcats.
What began as a season full of postseason prospects has come to an unfortunate end as NU finished the regular season at 12th place in the Big Ten, failing to qualify for the conference tournament.
Hope was not lost for Northwestern until the very end, though. Even after losing three straight contests to Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota, the ‘Cats were still in a position to make a postseason run. Wins in their last two matchups against Purdue and Ohio State would have boosted them into contention — one loss and a win would have also potentially sent them through, albeit they would have needed to depend on the outcomes of other games as well.
The latter option was likely what most Wildcat fans expected it to come down to as Northwestern traveled to West Lafayette to face No. 18 Purdue. The ‘Cats looked confident from the initial whistle — an early shot attempt in the first two minutes from just outside the box by Aurea Martin came close to hitting the back of the net and indicated that maybe Michael Moynihan’s offensive press was finally picking up steam. Unfortunately, it was sloppy play out of the back that shifted momentum into Purdue’s favor as the Boiler’s Sydney Duarte slotted a pinpoint shot past Mackenzie Wood in the 16th minute.
Despite 13 shots from the ‘Cats — the same number of shots they put up in their previous three losses combined — and eight saves from Wood in goal, Purdue managed to hold on to their one-goal lead until the final whistle. With the 1-0 loss, Northwestern’s postseason hopes narrowed further, and the team had to depend on factors out of their control to qualify for a chance at Big Ten tournament hardware.
Aside from a win in their final regular season contest against Ohio State at home, the ‘Cats would have needed at least two of their conference counterparts — Penn State, Wisconsin, Indiana or Minnesota — to lose in their respective matchups. To make matters more chaotic, all five games Northwestern depended on to push them through, including their own, had kickoff times within two hours of each other. In sum, Northwestern’s entire season came down to a single four hour time period on the last day of conference play before the postseason.
There was little the ‘Cats could do other than cross their fingers that everything would go in their favor. That left Moynihan and Co. to focus on honoring their 12 senior players, including two grad students, on Senior Day with a win at home against OSU.
Nothing would be more appropriate for a crunch-time matchup than a classic midwestern rainstorm rolling in just before the opening kickoff. With no lightning in sight, the game continued outdoors as planned. The Wildcats and Buckeyes went head-to-head, with the physicality of both teams heightened by wet conditions. The first half went by scoreless with both teams evenly matched, each contributing three shots apiece. Unfortunately, Northwestern’s game plan broke down in the second half and the Buckeyes capitalized.
A turnover in NU’s half quickly turned into a full-field counter for OSU 10 minutes into the second half. A long ball by a Buckeye defender into a one-on-one situation between OSU’s Kayla Fischer and freshman NU defender Emma Phillips went awry, and a quick touch from Fischer gave her enough space to spot Wood off her line and finish a powerful lofted shot from outside the box. Things continued to go downhill for the ‘Cats, as a late tackle in the box by Hallie Pearson earned the Buckeyes a penalty kick, which they converted in the 70th minute to make the score 2-0.
At this point, Purdue had defeated Indiana, checking the box for one of at least two outcomes Northwestern needed other than their own victory. Nebraska also led Minnesota, putting even more pressure on the ‘Cats to even their scoreline.
Oh, did they come close.
An Ohio State red card just after the penalty kick gave Northwestern a slight advantage for the final 20 minutes, and Regan Steigleder capitalized with a last-minute goal. The ‘Cats couldn’t pull it out before the final whistle, however, and their season came to an end.
As one of the 12 seniors honored in pre-game ceremonies, grad student Steigleder leaves Moynihan’s program as one of the most successful players of his tenure. Of her 56 games played, she started 55 and scored a total of 12 goals during her five years with the program. She has been the engine of Moynihan’s midfield, facilitating connections between the defensive and attacking thirds in every contest she’s been a part of.
In addition to Steigleder, some notable members of this year’s senior class include goalkeeper Mackenzie Wood, forward Olivia Stone and defenders Kaylee Titus and Julietta Thron. With just over one-third of this Wildcat squad having likely played their last game at Martin Stadium, Moynihan and Co. have the difficult task of replacing their wealth of experience, skill and leadership this coming offseason.