The postseason is close, which means so is the making of a deep Northwestern postseason run.
Northwestern clinched a share of the Big Ten regular season title with victories over No. 16 Penn State and No. 4 Rutgers over the weekend, marking the program’s first since 2013. With 15 straight victories, the No. 1 team in the nation has well-earned championship expectations. Here are three reasons from the Northeast road trip that show why.
Northwestern can handle some adversity
Following a 2-0 victory over Penn State, Northwestern found itself in a more challenging position against Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights got on board in the first quarter and held their lead up until the fourth quarter before Ilse Tromp scored and sent the game into overtime. Then, double overtime. Then, shootouts.
Rutgers was perfect through the first three one-on-ones, while only Peyton Halsey made a shot for Northwestern. Behind 3-1 in the shootout, goals from Olivia Bent-Cole and Lane Herbert, along with a save from Annabel Skubisz made it even again. Rutgers seemed to halt the comeback and cement its victory with its last shot hitting the backboards, but the goal was reversed. Keeping up with the extended overtime, the game went into an additional shootout.
Skubisz denied the Scarlet Knights, and Halsey scored to clinch a portion of the Big Ten title. Whether behind all game or behind in its very last chance, Northwestern proved it has the will to keep on going.
A notable absence from the lineup since Michigan on Oct. 1 is Maja Zivojnovic. The second year proved herself to be a pivotal piece to the ‘Cats on both offense and defense, tallying nine goals through 12 games.
Despite not having Zivojnovic for some of the toughest games this season, the defense remained solid behind Skubisz. The senior goalie currently has the third-best save percentage in the country of .357 after 13 saves this weekend, and Northwestern leads the NCAA in save percentage with .866. The Wildcats have amassed 16 goals and allowed just eight. The team that has limited the second most goals is Rutgers at 16 — double the amount of the ‘Cats. The roster is deep. Given some challenges here and there, Tracey Fuchs has the tools to power through.
In with the new and the old
From the first-years to the veterans, Northwestern has played well with each other all year.
Senior Lauren Wadas led the way for the ‘Cats against Penn State, scoring both goals off penalty corners. Alia Marshall’s valuable experience as an inserter has been ever so apparent this season, as the graduate student helps NU excel in these opportunities. Nine of its last 12 goals came off corners.
Against Rutgers, the underclassmen proved their worth. Graduate student Halsey got the game-winner, but it was first-year Bent-Cole who broke the scoreless streak on the shootout. It was also Tromp, a first-year, who broke through on a penalty corner, assisted by Marshall and Lauren Hunter, to tie the game in the fourth quarter.
The target is on the Wildcats’ backs
Rutgers is one of the best teams in the country and has shown that with wins over now No. 9 Maryland and No. 10 Ohio State. While it was close, the ‘Cats outshot the Scarlet Knights 15-10 and did not even allow them a single shot in the entirety of the second half.
All eyes were on the Wildcats to see how they would square up against their Big Ten foes at the end of the season. Northwestern has done nothing but exceed expectations. With shutout victories over ranked teams in Michigan, Iowa, and Penn State and clawing their way back to take down Rutgers on the road, the ‘Cats have proved they are deserving of their No. 1 ranking and are the team to the beat.
With a share of the Big Ten regular season title under wraps, Northwestern will play Maryland on Thursday, before the Big Ten Tournament next week.