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National title brings things full circle for Northwestern in more ways than one

The Wildcats’ Sunday win provided closure to several journeys, some more than just one season in the making.

Ryan Kuttler - Northwestern Athletics

“I’m like actually kind of shaking right now,” Northwestern’s Maddie Zimmer told the media in her first postgame comments on Sunday. You could tell that she was simply amazed by the emotions of the moment, and no one could blame her.

It seems that Northwestern brought a fitting end to more than just its season with a 2-0 national championship win over Liberty in Ann Arbor.

Sure, the victory completed a momentous run that gave NU its first ever NCAA title in the sport and just its ninth ever in school history, but when season started, the team itself wasn’t even complete. Zimmer and her teammates Kayla Blas, Annabel Skubisz, Lauren Wadas and Alia Marshall all missed the first two games of what would become a title campaign. They weren’t hurt, of course, just busy competing with the United States Women’s National Team’s junior squad in the Junior Pan American Championships in Santiago, Chile. Nonetheless, the whole NU roster was present when the Wildcats’ season ended in glory.

The talent was evident from the beginning, as even without the five aforementioned starters, the ‘Cats rolled over ranked opponents UConn and Miami-Ohio to start things off. But the year wasn’t without its trials, tribulations and causes for doubt that this moment would come.

After rolling through their non-conference slate, the Wildcats hit a big of snag upon entering their Big Ten schedule. Top open up conference play, NU dropped three of its first four contests, including two consecutive losses in double overtime at Penn State and Michigan. The momentary blip was certainly understandable given the level of fatigue the ‘Cats must have been facing.

“We haven’t stopped since last August because we thought ‘we’re gonna play in the fall,’” said legendary NU head coach Tracey Fuchs, who, with the win, earned her third national title as a player and coach with a third different program. “We didn’t. We trained, and we played in the spring, a little summer.”

Fuchs was referring to the fact that the pandemic forced the 2020 season quite literally out of 2020 and into the spring of 2021, creating a sort of mega season for the nation’s college field hockey programs with a summer break in the middle. A tumble like the one Northwestern experienced could’ve thrown a team battling the exhaustion of such a long run off of its course, threatening its entire season in the process.

Still, after the mini-slump that dropped them out of realistic contention for a regular season Big Ten title, the Wildcats found a way to dig deep and play at a higher level than they had at any point thus far. They won their final five games of regular season competition, downing the then-undefeated and No. 1 Iowa Hawkeyes — who had eliminated them in the NCAA quarterfinals in the season prior — 2-1 on the road.

From that point forward, NU would only lose once more in a shootout heartbreaker against Michigan in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. Instead of shaking the ‘Cats, though, Zimmer said that the loss only further sharpened her team’s focus.

“It kind of like lit the fire under us,” she stated. “We were like, okay, that’s fine, Big Ten’s done. The real postseason is starting now.”

The Wildcats’ NCAA Tournament draw did them no favors. To get to the nation’s pinnacle, they had to go through the three-time defending champion North Carolina, the same Iowa team that had ended their previous season before they avenged their loss, the best scoring defense in the country in Harvard and the best collegiate offense in Liberty.

To two of the team’s newest members, though, the challenging course was only right. Clara Roth and Maddie Bacskai transferred from Princeton to NU before the second 2021 campaign after lengthy and successful careers at the prestigious New Jersey institution. While playing for the Tigers, the pair lost in the 2018 national title game to the Tar Heels. Their experience in purple and white provided the opportunity for revenge.

“It was funny coming into this tournament and that being our first-round opponent, having lost in the national championship with Princeton,” said Bacskai. “It did sort of feel like full circle, also having Harvard in our Final Four game as well, just that that rivalry with Princeton.”

The former Ivy Leaguers got their redemption, as NU breezed past the Tar Heels 3-0 in the first round. The team proceeded to down Iowa 2-0 to earn their second win against the Hawkeyes of the season and reverse the narrative set just months prior.

The first two tournament wins sent the Wildcats back to the home turf of Michigan — the only team to defeat them twice — for the Final Four. In the national semifinal, they met with Harvard, the team that did what they could not, defeating the maize and blue and finishing the Wolverines for good. Despite the rigid Crimson defense’s stellar attempts, the Wildcats did just enough, pulling ahead on a converted corner attempt by Bente Baekers in overtime to win their first game out of regulation in the season after three OT losses and to move within one victory of national championship glory.

If the matchup with Harvard tested NU’s offensive acumen, Liberty’s fearsome offense certainly put pressure on the Wildcats’ defense to hold up its end of the deal, a task that it in no way failed to live up to. They fended off all five of the Flames’ first half penalty corner attempts, keeping things scoreless and opening the window for goals by Marshall and Zimmer to be the difference. When the clock struck zero in the fourth quarter, all 28 Wildcats amassed around their goalkeeper Skubisz in national championship glee.

In just a few weeks, the same group that missed the very beginning of the season will report back to national team duty, this time for the Junior Hockey World Cup. While donning the red, white and blue will be its own journey that will conclude before the eventful year does, the ‘Cats’ representatives already have made a memory that will last them a lifetime.

“We knew we could do it,” said Zimmer, who won the NCAA’s Most Outstanding Player award for the tournament. “We finished. We did the details, and we came out on top.”