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Field Hockey: Offensive struggles lead ‘Cats to slow start in conference play

Just three games into Big Ten competition, Northwestern has picked up more losses than it did in its entire non-conference slate.

At the end of their non-conference schedule, the Northwestern Wildcats were flying high. Ranked third in the country, the ‘Cats were nine games into their season and had suffered just one loss to then-seventh-ranked Boston College in a neutral site affair.

Now, just three games later, their season has taken a drastic turn, as they dropped two of their first three Big Ten contests to fall to 9-3. With the fall in record has come a corresponding drop in the rankings, as Tracey Fuchs’ team is now slotted at sixth in the nation. Notably though, of the five teams ahead of NU in the rankings, four are Big Ten foes. Two of said teams — Rutgers and Penn State — leapfrogged the ‘Cats after defeating them in the last two weeks, while the other two — top-ranked Iowa and current No. 2 Michigan — have clashes set with NU in the coming month.

The mini-slump for the Wildcats began with their match against the then-10th-ranked Scarlet Knights, a home bout that was tight until the finish. Things were quiet early on, with neither team scoring a goal in the first quarter or the early parts of the second.

In the 28th minute — just ahead of the halftime break — Bente Baekers blocked an RU shot, which defender Kayla Blas managed to recover and slam home for the opening goal to put NU up 1-0. Late in the third quarter, though, the tide would begin to shift, as Rutgers’ Gianna Mancini delivered a score off of a beautiful entry pass from teammate Iris Langejans.

With the score knotted at one and less than seven minutes remaining on the clock, RU’s Milena Redlingshoefer found the back of the net to put her team up for good, giving New Jersey’s Big Ten Team an upset victory. Though they came into the game the underdogs, no one could argue that the Scarlet Knights were outplayed, as they outshot the Wildcats 14-10 and held an even wider 9-4 margin in shots on goal.

In need of a bounce back, Northwestern then traveled to College Park to take on the Maryland Terrapins, who were ranked seventh nationally at the time. The ‘Cats maintained solid control over most of the match, with Maddie Zimmer striking first on a two-on-one in which she was assisted by star junior Bente Baekers. In the third quarter, Princeton transfer Clara Roth tipped one just across the goal line to give NU a 2-0 advantage, and minutes into the fourth, Baekers nailed home a score of her own on a penalty corner to make it 3-0 in favor of the Wildcats. With 23 seconds remaining in the game, the Terps’ Hope Rose would deny Annabel Skubisz of a shutout, scoring off a deflection. But it wouldn’t change the result, as Northwestern would walk away with its first Big Ten victory of the season.

The ‘Cats’ inability to score unfortunately returned when they made their way to University Park, as they fell to Penn State in double overtime. After giving up the game’s first goal with 24 seconds remaining in the third quarter, the Wildcats were scoreless and in need of an equalizer to extend the contest with two minutes remaining. That’s when, true to form, Bente Baekers worked her magic and found twine to tie things up at one.

Her late game heroics sadly went to waste, as after a scoreless first overtime period, PSU’s Sophia Gladieux netted the game winner in the 77th minute of play to drop NU to 1-2 in conference play. Once again, the ‘Cats lost a game not due to the play of Skubisz, who racked up a career-high 11 saves, but on account of their usually efficient offense.

NU’s most immediate chance to get back on track won’t be an easy one, as the Wildcats will face No. 2 Michigan in Ann Arbor on Friday. However, after their showdown with the Wolverines, the ‘Cats will be back to familiar territory and easier competition when they take on Ball State in Evanston on Sunday.