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Northwestern returns to NCAA field hockey’s biggest stage with national title hopes

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It’s taken three decades, but the Wildcats have finally earned the chance to compete for a national title again.

Northwestern Athletics

Northwestern field hockey head coach Tracey Fuchs typically doesn’t like to make bold predictions too early in the season, but this year was different.

At the beginning of the 2021 NCAA field hockey season, she told people within her program and a few media members that she saw Final Four potential in her team. Three months later, her prediction came true.

“This is the best NCAA field hockey [team] in my lifetime,” Fuchs said on Wednesday morning. “We’re just solid everywhere. We’ve got great goaltending, our defense is solid, and then you have people like Bente [Baekers], Maddie Zimmer and Lauren Wadas who can light it up. They just can’t take out one player and stop us. They’ve got to take out six or seven.”

Since she took over the program 13 years ago, Fuchs’ mission at Northwestern has been to help the Wildcats inch back toward the ultimate goal of returning to powerhouse status and reaching a Final Four — something they haven’t done in 27 years.

This weekend, that dream will come to fruition as the No. 7 Wildcats face the No. 12 Harvard Crimson in Ann Arbor, Mich. on Friday with the hopes of advancing to play either Maryland or Liberty in the national championship game on Sunday.

But for NU, the road back to their first Final Four in three decades wasn’t the easiest and has been a long time coming. In the 1980s and 90s, Northwestern was a field hockey powerhouse, making nine consecutive NCAA Tournaments from 1983-91. The Wildcats made four Final Fours between 1983-94 before a 20-year tournament drought. In 2014, Fuchs helped bring an end to the dry spell and put the program back on the map. This season marks NU’s third consecutive tournament appearance, with Sweet 16, Elite Eight and now Final Four showings in the last three years — all culminating in the chance to compete for a national title this weekend.

Despite the massive milestone and the team’s excitement heading into the weekend, these Final Four expectations were set for the 28 players on NU’s roster before they even arrived in Evanston.

“When we first got here, we were all recruited by our assistant coach Will Byrne, and he told us that we were going to change the program, so I think having that expectation coming in was great for us,” said junior midfielder/back Alia Marshall.

But having to play two full seasons in one calendar year due to COVID-19 added an extra challenge that Fuchs wasn’t sure her team could handle. In the end, she believes it’s that unusual schedule that helped her players have so much success this year.

“After losing a heartbreaker in the Elite Eight to Iowa last year, I think it really kept us hungry,” Fuchs said. “We didn’t have to wait a whole year, and the players came back. They were good. They were fit. Our game is fast-paced. Our kids run between six and eight miles a game, and we want to wear other teams down. I think the quick turnaround really helped that as we came into August.”

While the painful loss last year kept them hungry on the field, COVID also brought them closer together off the field.

“I think during COVID, we were in a bubble, we were all together,” sophomore midfielder Lauren Wadas said. “I think that really brought us closer together, especially going into the season, and you can really see it out on the field.”

Senior Kayla Blas, who has seen the program progress from not making the tournament her freshman year to now reaching a Final Four, said that chemistry has been the determining factor.

“The people that they’ve brought in have been world-class players, but they’re also world-class people,” she said. “We’re all one of 28. We love each other. We are out there to play for each other. I think our team chemistry is what has grown the most, and I think that’s what helped us go and get to the Final Four now. It’s definitely something that we were lacking that now is our greatest strength.”

This Northwestern squad undeniably has the talent and chemistry to win the first national title in program history, but it still has some significant challenges to overcome to reach that achievement. First, it will have to take down Harvard — a team NU hasn’t faced since 2004 — in its Final Four matchup

While Northwestern ranks second in the nation in scoring offense, the Ivy League Champions are the top scoring defense in the country. The Crimson only lost one game this season to No. 16 UConn in shootouts two months ago and has only allowed its opponents to score eight goals in 18 games.

“They’re stingy,” Fuchs said. “They don’t give up a lot of shots. They don’t give up a ton of corners. We’re a good counterattack team, so ... we just need to play our game and play quick and not worry about mistakes. We know we get a lot of opportunities, and we really need to attack the outsides and get their defenders on the move if we’re going to draw corners and good shots on the goalkeeper.”

Fuchs said her team has emphasized penalty corners and shootouts in practice this week, as she expects those will be deciding factors in Friday’s matchup. But Blas says it will come down to heart.

“I think it’s going to come down to who wants it more, who is going to have more fight, and who is going to have more of a will to put it in the back of the net,” she said. “I would choose every single person on this team over anybody any day of the week.

“At the end of the day,” she added, “I trust in us, and I trust what we’ve been doing to prepare.”

For most of the Wildcats, Friday will be the biggest stage they’ve ever played on, but Fuchs has been there countless times before. Friday will mark her sixth Final Four appearance as both a player and coach, and she has already won two national titles in her career in 1985 as a player at UConn and in 2001 as a coach at Michigan. The players will rely on her expertise and poise during the high-stakes weekend, but she says it’s important they focus on the task at hand.

“For the players and coaches who haven’t been there, it’s going to be eye-opening,” Fuchs said. “There’s a lot going on. But you just got to take it in stride, and you have to remember what got you there, and that’s the simple things and doing what you do best on the field.”

If Northwestern can take down Harvard on Friday, it will have the opportunity to compete for a national title for the first time ever — something every player, coach and staff member has worked their whole lives to do.

“I think all of us, from the people who play the entire game to the people who sit on the bench, have sacrificed so much and put our hearts and souls into this team, and I just think winning the national championship would be amazing for us,” said junior midfielder Peyton Halsey.

But no matter the outcome this weekend, this Northwestern squad will go down in school history for their unmatched talent, the challenges they’ve overcome and the team unity that’s allowed them to reach this extraordinary moment.

“I’m just really proud of the work that we’ve done here, the legacy that we’ve definitely been able to leave behind and the friendships that we’ve been able to make,” Blas said. “I’ve met my lifelong friends here, and I know any girl in my class could say the same.”