After a shaky stretch in conference play, it appears that the Northwestern is hitting its stride right when it matters most.
The ‘Cats swept their final weekend of regular season play, knocking off previously-undefeated No. 1 Iowa on the road and trouncing Indiana in Evanston to jump up a spot to fifth in the national rankings and finish their pre-scheduled slate with a 14-4 record. Bente Baekers led the team in shots across the two contests with nine — including one breakaway goal against the Hoosiers — while goalkeeper Annabel Skubisz allowed only one goal across her two starts, earning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors in the process
Friday’s trip to Iowa City was one that the ‘Cats surely won’t forget for some time. In a through-and-through defensive battle, the ‘Cats went up early on a shot from Alia Marshall just two minutes and 48 seconds into the start of the game. That 1-0 score would hold for the overwhelming majority of the game, as Skubisz and Iowa goalie Grace McGuire took turn sending shots away, resulting in scoreless second and third periods.
The scoring silence wouldn’t last forever, though. The Hawkeyes equalized with under eight minutes to play in the match on a goal from Ciara Smith. NU wouldn’t be denied, however, as Ana Medina Garcia knocked in the game-winner with only three minutes and 25 seconds to play off of a deflected shot from Baekers.
The win marked the first time NU had defeated the top-ranked team in program history, and Tracey Fuchs’ team celebrated accordingly.
Next up for Northwestern was its season-closing Senior Day matchup against the Indiana. Much like in the previous game, Skubisz was a brick wall in front of the net, producing a clean sheet with two saves in 45 minutes of goalkeeping before passing things off to backup Jamie Marold for the final frame.
Offensively, though, things were completely different for the ‘Cats this time around against a different (and less fearsome) opponent. NU netted six goals total, including two scores each from defending Big Ten Freshman of the Year Maddie Zimmer and Princeton transfer Clara Roth, and a closing exclamation point from Bente Baekers on a breakaway for her 17th goal of the year.
Baekers is now second in the nation in points with 43 and tied for third nationally in goals with 17. Roth, meanwhile, has proven to be a valuable offensive addition, as even with Baekers present, she has managed to score 12 times this season, good for fourth in the Big Ten.
The ‘Cats will now move onto postseason play, which will begin Thursday in Piscataway with the commencement of the Big Ten Field Hockey Tournament. Despite being ranked second and fifth in the nation, respectively, Michigan and Northwestern finished fourth and fifth in conference play. As such, they’ll face each other for the opportunity to take on top-seeded Iowa in the semifinal round.
Should they win that bracket, the Wildcats will be guaranteed a spot in the NCAA Tournament. However, it’s likely they’ll already qualify regardless of their finish in the conference playoff, as their résumé is already established enough to earn them one of the eight at-large bids available for the Big Dance.