It is time to start referring to all Northwestern sports teams in NCAA Tournament play as the Cardiac ‘Cats. If field hockey’s last minutes didn’t give you a heart attack, maybe the other Northwestern women’s team on the other side of the country did.
In a game that was not decided until the final whistle, the Wildcats (16-4-2, 7-2-1 B1G) defeated the Vanderbilt Commodores (12-5-4, 5-3-2 SEC) 2-1 to advance to the Round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament. It is Northwestern's third time making it to the Sweet 16 in program history, and the third time it has reached 16 wins in a season.
The Commodores kicked off to start the game. As both teams felt each other out, the ‘Cats found their way into the attacking third with a ball down the right side of the field. Northwestern had constant pressure on Vanderbilt, and the ‘Dores played it out for a NU’s first corner kick of the night. Josie Aulicino’s corner never saw the field of play, as she sailed it over the net for a Vandy goal kick.
The Commodores flipped the field and put NU on the defense 10 minutes into the game. However, Rowan Lapi poked it away as neither team had a shot on the net in the first 15 minutes of the game.
The Wildcats sent multiple crosses into the box but to no avail. Both teams were physical on the ball, as the referees were not eager to blow the whistle for fouls.
Meg Boade was able to work her way into the Commodores’ 18-yard box, but had the ball knocked away and sent into the midfield. After the ball bounced around the midfield, a through ball found Aurea del Carmen as she turned and got down the left side, but her pass to Boade was just out of reach and found a Vanderbilt defender.
Vandy midfielder Raegan Kelly made a break to outside the Northwestern 18-yard box, but her pass to the corner was taken away by the ‘Cats. Regardless, the Commodores did not waste any time pushing the Wildcats back into their defending third. Maddie Baker sent a cross into the box looking for Peyton Cutshall, but Cutshall could not get her head on it correctly and it bounced out for a NU goal kick. Neither team had a shot 28 minutes into the game.
Vanderbilt moved the ball around the pitch, not pressing the ‘Cats. The Commodores were unable to capitalize on their chance, as the ball rolled out for a Northwestern goal kick. The Wildcats had their own chance to score, as Vanderbilt goalkeeper Sara Wojdelko could not corral the ball inside the 18, leaving a free ball for NU. The ‘Cats could not get a good foot on the ball, as Aulicino slowly dribbled a shot right at Wojdelko.
With about five minutes left in the half, Kelsey Kwon came onto the pitch and established her impact immediately. Creating one of Northwestern’s best game opportunities, the duo of Paige Miller and Kwon worked the ball right in front of the Commodore box, but NU was unable to capitalize. The ‘Cats had one more opportunity before the half, as Boade sent a ball in that Miller headed right to Wojdelko, keeping the score 0-0 at the break.
Northwestern kicked off the second half, but the Commodores had the first chance to break the tie. A Vanderbilt pass flew just over the head of Cutshall, who was stationed inside the six-yard box, and out for a NU goal kick. It was all Vandy to begin the half, as Alex Wagner had a good look on net, but it was saved by NU goalkeeper Mia Raben.
The Wildcats began to find their footing five minutes into the second half. A through ball found Lily Gilberston down the right sideline, who crossed it into del Carmen, but it was deflected and a shot by Ella Hass rolled to Wojdelko.
About 10 minutes into the second half, Northwestern broke through to take the lead. As the ball bounced around the attacking third, Ingrid Falls crossed the ball into the box, which bounced straight up into the air before Aulicino corralled it and buried the shot in the back of the net, giving the ‘Cats a 1-0 lead.
Following the goal, Vanderbilt got more aggressive attempting to get into the attacking third. The Commodores pushed up the field but left themselves vulnerable to a Northwestern counter-attack. The ‘Cats tried to capitalize, but two unsuccessful clean looks on net from del Carmen and an offside flag after Falls beat her defender inside the box prevented any chance for NU to pad its lead.
In a break for the ‘Cats, a costly mistake by the Commodores allowed them to keep their lead. Abena Aidoo took the ball all the way into the box and a deflected pass found Brooke VanDyck. The Vanderbilt grad student went to the other side of the net and beat Raben for what should have been an easy goal, but Aidoo booted it into the net to make sure the ball went in. Since Aidoo was offside when she scored, the officials wiped off the goal and awarded Northwestern a free kick. Instead of a tie game, Michael Moynihan’s squad held its 1-0 lead with 20 minutes left to play.
Neither team could get a clean look for the next ten minutes until the ‘Cats got the insurance they needed. Aulicino would take the ball at midfield and dribble it to the edge of the box before she executed a give-and-go with Bridget Mitchell. Aulicino’s shot was blocked by Wojdelko, but Mitchell drilled the rebound into the back of the net to give NU a 2-0 lead.
However, Vanderbilt would not go quietly into the Los Angeles night. It got the ball deep into Wildcat territory, and a misplay by Ella Hass gave the Commodores a corner kick. On the corner, Lapi was called for a foul inside the box, which gave Vandy's Ella Shamburger a penalty kick opportunity. She beat Raben and cut Northwestern’s lead to one with eight minutes left in the game.
The Commodores pushed Northwestern until the final whistle. Wagner made one last attempt for Vanderbilt, but Lapi was able to poke the ball away on a physical tackle. The ‘Cats held off the 'Dores to maintain their 2-1 edge, earning them the victory and a trip to the Round of 16.
Northwestern will be back in action Sunday at 8 p.m. CT against No. 1 seed UCLA. The game will be broadcast on ESPN+.