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Northwestern field hockey 101: Everything you need to know before the national championship game

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You’re probably wondering why there are so many whistles in field hockey. We’ll explain.

Northwestern Athletics

With Northwestern field hockey just a few hours away from its first national title game appearance in program history, there is still plenty of time to catch up on what you’ve missed so far this season — either with the ‘Cats, the tournament or the sport of field hockey in general.

Here is everything you need to know ahead of NU’s game this afternoon:

What to know about Northwestern’s matchup with Liberty

To bring home the national title to Evanston, the Wildcats will have to take down the Liberty Flames in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Sunday. While the Wildcats ranked seventh in the country in the latest poll, the Flames weren’t far behind at No. 9.

The matchup will be an offensive battle, as the nation’s top two offenses are set to go head-to-head. Liberty currently leads Division I in scoring an average of 3.61 goals per game. The Wildcats are second with 3.44.

Liberty has two of the nation’s top 10 goal scorers on its roster — Jill Bolton (0.86 gpg) and Daniella Rhodes (0.84 gpg) — who rank eighth and ninth, respectively. Northwestern’s Bente Baekers leads them slightly at sixth with 0.9 goals per game.

So far, the Flames have defeated St. Joseph’s and notched two upsets against No. 1 overall seed Rutgers and No. 5 Maryland in the tournament.

Northwestern faced the 20-2 Flames earlier this season in September and came out with a 4-3 win thanks to a Clara Roth game-winner with just two minutes left in regulation.

Both teams are making their first appearances in the national title game — the first time this has happened since 1987. It is the first championship game appearance for any Liberty Athletics team at the Division I level. This is also the first time in NCAA Division I field hockey championship history that a former player is competing against her former coach in the title game. Liberty’s Nikki Parsley-Blocker played for NU’s Tracey Fuchs from 2010 to 2013.

What to know about the 2021 Wildcats

Fuchs’ current squad may be the most talented group she’s had in her 13 years with the program. The Wildcats are deep at all levels and carry some of the most talented offensive weapons in the nation on their roster.

Starting up front, first-team All-Big Ten selection Maddie Zimmer has dominated yet again in her second season in Evanston after winning the conference’s Freshman of the Year award last time around. She has notched eight goals on the year and is consistently one of the fastest and most aggressive players on the attack. She works alongside Baekers, who will go down as one of the best goal scorers in NU history and leads the team with 18 goals and 45 points on the year. She was also awarded first-team all-conference honors and ranks sixth in the nation in goals per game.

They are also joined by the team’s second-leading goal scorer — Princeton graduate transfer Roth. With 13 goals on the year, Roth has brought crucial experience to the squad, especially in the tournament, as she competed with the Tigers in a national title game in 2019.

The attack is rounded out by players like Lauren Wadas, Maren Seidel, Peyton Halsey, Liese Wareham and Ana Medina Garcia who have been consistent goal scorers and contributors throughout the regular and post-season.

On the defensive end, senior back Kayla Blas leads the charge. The second-team All-Big Ten honoree ranks 10th in the nation in assists per game and commands a group that has steadily improved throughout the season. Alongside Blas and junior back Alia Marshall, Wildcat goalie Annabel Skubisz has established herself as a dominant presence in the cage with a .776 save percentage.

Coming out of the best conference in the nation in the Big Ten, the Wildcats are battle-tested with 12 ranked wins under their belt. They have already defeated No. 8 UNC — the three-time defending national champions — and the tournament’s No. 2 overall seed, Iowa, to advance to their first Final Four in three decades before taking down No. 12 Harvard in overtime on Friday.

If they can come away with a win in their first championship game appearance ever, they will bring the first national title in a team sport back to Evanston since 2012.

What to know about the sport of field hockey

The objective of field hockey is to score more goals than your opponent before time runs out. Eleven players from each team compete at a time, including the goalies, and the sport is noncontact. The hour-long game is broken into four 15-minute quarters.

The dimensions of a field hockey field run similar to a soccer field at about 100x60 yards. It features a midfield line, two lines around the 25-yard line and two semi-circles. The solid shooting circle is the only area on the field where players are allowed to shoot from. Any shot that goes in from outside the semi-circle does not count. There is also a dotted semi-circle that runs five meters outside of the shooting circle. Field hockey is traditionally played on water-based astroturf, which is why it appears wet.

More so than most other sports, the referee’s whistle blows very often in field hockey. This usually signifies a free hit, which is awarded to a team when a player on the opposing team hits the ball with anything that is not the flat side of the stick (foot, another body part, round side of stick, etc.). Free hits can also be awarded if a team commits third-party obstruction, which is when a player uses their body to shield the ball from another player. When the whistle is blown, the team that committed the violation must retreat five meters to allow the team with possession to take a free hit, which can be an actual hit/pass, dribbling/self-starting or an aerial where they lift it over a crowd.

If a defender commits a foul inside the shooting circle that does not stop a legitimate chance of a goal, a penalty corner is awarded. During these plays, all offensive and all but a few select defensive players must be outside the shooting circle. Four defensive players and the defense’s goalkeeper line up inside the goal cage to defend the shot, while the rest of their teammates must start at the 50-yard line and sprint back into the circle when the play begins to help defend. The offense may line up as many players as it wishes around the circle. An offensive player along the end line then inserts the ball, often to a player at the top of the circle who takes a shot. The ball must exit the circle and re-enter before a shot can be taken. In college field hockey, for the goal to count it must either cross the goal line at a height of no more than 18-inches (indicated by the solid backboard in the back of the net) or be tipped by another teammate if it goes higher. The corner ends when someone scores or when the ball clears the dotted circle.

If the attacking team fouls inside the shooting circle or hits the ball over the end line, the defense will be awarded a free hit at the 16-yard line. If a defender unintentionally hits the ball behind their own goal line, the offense will receive the ball at the 25-yard line.

While penalty corners occur if the foul does not impact a legitimate scoring chance, penalty strokes are awarded to teams when a defender commits a foul that deliberately disrupts their scoring opportunity, such as blocking a goal from going in with one’s foot. In these instances, the ball is placed on the penalty spot in the shooting circle, and the shooter has one shot to get it past the goalie. They must flick or push the ball in, starting with their stick on the ball.

More severe penalties are divided into three categories — green, yellow and red cards. Green cards are given for more common fouls like substitution violations, intentionally delaying a game or being within five meters of the ball when defending a free hit. These violations result in a two-minute suspension during which the penalized team plays down a player.

Yellow or red cards are given for dangerous plays like excessive body contact, dangerous misuse of the stick, lifting the ball within five meters of another player or playing the ball above shoulder height in a dangerous situation. Yellow card suspensions range from 5-10 minutes at the discretion of the umpire, while red cards are permanent suspensions from the game.

Finally, if neither team has the advantage after 60 minutes of play, a field hockey game will go to overtime. College field hockey overtime consists of two 10-minute sudden death periods. If the score remains tied after that, the teams will participate in a shootout where a single offensive player goes against the goalie — similar to ice hockey. In a best-of-five series, the offensive player has eight seconds to score and can shoot as many times as she’d like. Whichever team converts more times in five tries wins.