Northwestern field hockey opens its long-awaited season against Michigan State on Saturday in Virginia Beach. The Big Ten has employed a neutral site in Virginia for the first two weeks where all nine conference teams will be present as a way to kick off the season.
Led by long-time head coach Tracey Fuchs, the Wildcats are hoping to build off of an incredibly successful season and further their feats.
Northwestern defied the odds last season. Despite posting a 9-10 record in 2018 and losing their star player in Puck Pentenga, the Wildcats were able to finish 14-8 and 5-3 in the conference, making the NCAA tournament as an at-large bid. Unfortunately, the Wildcats were knocked out in the opening round at the hands of Boston College.
The success of 2019 is largely thanks to Bente Baekers. As a first-year, she stepped into a lead role at forward and thrived. She led the conference in goals with 28, received six Big Ten weekly honors, earned First Team All-Big Ten and was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Senior Kirsten Mansfield led the nation with 17 assists and sophomore Maren Seidel tacked on six goals herself.
Coming into 2021, Northwestern’s largest holes are on the backside. Two starting defensive players Lily Gandhi and Mansfield left the program in a position group that was already the weak spot for the team. Northwestern ranked 26th in the nation in goals allowed per game with 1.45 compared to a scoring attack that ranked 11th nationally.
Offensively, the Wildcats lost their second-leading scorer Saar de Breij. De Breij tallied nine goals on the season and was a Second Team All-Big Ten finisher.
Additionally, the ‘Cats lost midfielders Lily Katzman and Erica Hootenstein, as well as goalie Caroline Hughes. Katzman started four games and appeared in all 22 in 2019.
This team lived and died by Baekers’ production a season ago, and this year may be a similar case. The reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year led the conference in both goals and total points in what was a historic season.
For a team that will have to rely on a scoring onslaught, the most consistent source of offensive production will be Baekers. As the ‘Cats find a consistent second scoring option, their fearless leader, who earned Big Ten preseason honors, will be at the head of any offensive attack.
Blas enters 2021 as the leader of a defensive unit that lost two of its main contributors. The 2019 Second Team All-Big Ten finisher started all 22 games for the ‘Cats and recorded nine assists. She earned conference preseason honors ahead of their first game. Blas will most likely enter a more playmaking-centered role, as Mansfield did a season ago.
The most experienced member and frontrunner to be the second scoring option for Northwestern is Barry. In 2019, she scored five goals and collected 13 total points. Now as a redshirt-senior, Barry is the leader of this team and should be able to mentor Northwestern’s young group of attackers outside of Baekers.
Seidel is the other returning player who recorded a fair amount of offensive production in 2019. The Germany-native scored six goals and appeared in all 22 games from the midfield for the Wildcats. The junior has started 34 games in her career and will bring experience for younger players.
The strongest candidate for a breakout campaign would be Marshall. The sophomore started 20 games as a freshman in 2019 and now stands as one of the most experienced on the defense. Marshall has the tools and the opportunity to stand out as a star player for the ‘Cats if she can help shore up a defense that has struggled at times.
2021 Season Outlook
The ‘Cats will likely be in contention for a conference title all season long, but it is not necessarily the expectation with powerhouse programs such as Maryland and Iowa. Regardless, Northwestern has one of the best shots to make some noise in the conference with one of the best players nationally in Baekers.
If Northwestern is able to establish reliable scoring outside of the Big Ten Freshman of the Year and continue to improve upon their defensive consistency, the sky is the limit. For a squad that exceeded expectations a season ago, there is reason to believe they can make yet another leap into dominancy.
The Wildcats also welcome 10 first years to the team, including Maddie Zimmer and Annabel Skubisz, both top-10 players in the class of 2020 according to Max Field Hockey. Zimmer also earned preseason honors from the Big Ten.
The goals for the season will likely be a conference title and making it out of the first round of the NCAA tournament, both of which are not far off from reason.