The first few weeks for the Northwestern field hockey team have been a trial by fire. Five games into the campaign, the ‘Cats are yet to play an unranked opponent. For the most part, though, Tracey Fuchs’ team has emerged from the blaze unscathed.
With four-ranked wins and a lone, neutral-site loss to No. 3 Boston College, the Wildcats have earned themselves the fifth spot in the National Field Hockey Coaches Association’s weekly poll behind the stellar play of junior Bente Baekers, who co-leads the team in both goals and assists, and is the sole leader in points with ten.
The ‘Cats opened up their season with a weekend set of ranked matchups at Lakeside Field, where they were undefeated during the 2020 season. Without five of their players — including starting goalkeeper Annabel Skubisz, reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year Maddie Zimmer and NFHCA All-American Kayla Blas — who were in Santiago, Chile representing the United States in the 2021 Junior Pan American Championships, the Wildcats were shorthanded but not understaffed, as they won handily in both contests.
Baekers got the season started in midyear form, scoring the Wildcats’ first goal of the 2021 season by way of a penalty corner in the 17th minute of NU’s season opener against then-sixth-ranked UConn. The ‘Cats would add another three goals on a Peyton Halsey shot off a deflection and a pair of scores from Maren Seidel. Meanwhile, Jamie Marold, who stood in at goalie for the absent Skubisz, put up a clean sheet, making two saves across the sixty minute contest to solidify a 4-0 Northwestern victory.
Two days later, Miami of Ohio (then ranked 21st in the nation) came to Evanston. Baekers was a force to be reckoned with against the Redhawks, scoring twice and assisting on another two goals en route to a 6-2 win for the Wildcats.
NU then traveled to Durham for a pair of games against top-tier ACC opponents. Rejoined by their five national team representatives, the ‘Cats faced off against hosting Duke, who were ranked 12th nationally ahead of the contest. After a seventh minute score from Baekers, Princeton grad transfer Clara Roth found the back of the net twice for her first goals as a Wildcat. Back in purple for the first time this season, Skubisz was forced to make only one save to shut out the Blue Devils, ensuring a dominant 3-0 result in favor of NU.
After a two-day wait, the Wildcats suited up for another match in the Bull City, this time against the Boston College Eagles, who entered ranked seventh in the country. Less than two minutes into the game, Roth scored to give NU an early 1-0 advantage. The Eagles quickly responded with a goal of their own from Jaime Natale in the seventh minute, evening the score at one.
In the third quarter, BC’s Elizabeth Warner netted what would be the game-winning goal off of a penalty corner, with Northwestern falling for the first time this season, 2-1.
Shortly before NU’s next game on the road against the Liberty Flames, the NFHCA released their first in-season poll, with the Wildcats coming in at No. 5, the Eagles moving up to No. 3, the Huskies falling to No. 12, the Blue Devils dropping all the way to No. 18 and the Redhawks exiting the Top 25 entirely. Undefeated ahead of their clash with the ‘Cats, the Flames entered at No. 11 in the rankings.
Liberty opened up the scoring against Northwestern early, with the Flames’ Martu Cian netting a goal shortly before the tenth minute of the game. NU’s Alia Marshall, assisted by Seidel, scored in the 13th minute to leave the game tied at one at the end of the first quarter. Neither team would score again until the 36th minute, when Seidel tacked on one of her own to give the Wildcats a 2-1 lead, which was erased less than eight minutes later after a score from LU’s Lizzie Hamlett.
In an action-packed final period, Northwestern regained their advantage on a goal from Liese Wareham seconds before the game clock struck 50 minutes. Hamlett was clutch once again for the Flames, though, netting a shot three minutes later to tie the game at three with seven-and-a-half minutes to play in regulation. Despite Hamlett’s late game heroics, however, the Wildcats wound up victorious, as Roth scored the game winner for NU with less than two minutes left in the fourth quarter.
The Wildcats’ schedule is due for a bit of an easier stretch, with home matches against newly-ranked Kent State and Maine, who entered the NFHCA poll ranked 23rd and 25th, respectively, on Tuesday before taking a trip to California to face unranked UC Davis and Cal next weekend.