Striving for back-to-back championships, Northwestern field hockey trailed North Carolina for most of the 2022 title game, but in a speck of hope, tied the game with just two minutes left in regulation. What seemed to be a confidence booster for the ‘Cats and momentum-killer for the Tar Heels was short-lived. Thirty-nine seconds later, North Carolina scored.
“At the end of the day, we didn’t bring any hardware home,” graduate student Alia Marshall said Wednesday. “I don’t dwell on it, but it is a constant reminder of what’s at stake and the goals we want to achieve.”
For the ‘Cats, last year’s loss is irrelevant. Everything that isn’t this team is.
“Our motto is W.I.N. What’s important now,” Marshall said. “We really like to focus on the practice in front of us, the drill in front of us and the game in front of us.”
What’s important now is the regular-season Big Ten title that Northwestern will play for on Thursday against No. 7 Maryland. The ‘Cats clinched a share of it against No. 4 Rutgers in a game that went into double overtime and then shootouts, marking their first regular-season conference crown since 2013.
“That’s not enough for us,” senior Lauren Wadas said. “We want to have the whole thing.”
A decade ago, this standard of excellence wasn’t necessarily tangible. From 1995 to 2018, the Wildcats only qualified for the NCAA Tournament in 2014 and 2017. Before the current state of the program, the prime of Northwestern field hockey was in the 1980s and 90s, and it never made it past the Final Four. Today, though, the Wildcats are national champions who have qualified for the NCAA Tournament in their last four seasons. Today, NU is the best team in the nation and has won 15 games in a row.
Marshall, Wadas, graduate student Peyton Halsey and senior goalie Annabel Skubisz are key facilitators of the program’s growth. Playing alongside one of the sport’s greatest players in Bente Baekers, they were all part of Northwestern's first championship appearance and first national tile, and have gathered postseason experience in each season. This year, they continue to help the ‘Cats dominate.
Halsey leads the team in goals with 10, including the game-winner over Rutgers. Marshall is a lethal passer with 15 assists and is a pivotal part of the ‘Cats’ efficient corners as the primary inserter. Wadas is an incredibly versatile player on both sides of the field, who has added 14 points on offense. Skubisz is arguably the best goalie in the country and has the third-best save percentage across Division I field hockey at .857.
But it isn’t just the veterans making the difference. They have contributed to making Northwestern field hockey a highly esteemed program, but they have also paved a culture that allows young and new talent to shine.
“Our leaders do a great job of, we call it ‘pop-up leadership,’ where anybody leads at any time,” head coach Tracey Fuchs said. “The quicker you can make your first-years feel comfortable, the more impact they’ll have on the field.”
Northwestern’s newcomers have done just that. Fuchs brought in Max Field Hockey Player of the Year Olivia Bent-Cole and highly touted Netherlands product Ilse Tromp, as well as Richmond graduate transfer Lindsey Frank, who Fuchs says is called “grandma” by the two first-years in the trio that they compose.
Bent-Cole already has amassed eight goals and 19 points on the season. With experience at multiple positions, Tromp is helpful as a back but has also shown a strong shooting ability, especially on corners.
“[Bent-Cole and Tromp] came in with no egos, as well as the rest of the freshman, just wanting to fit it,” Skubisz said. “I think that’s another staple of our team. It really is a level playing field, and there’s mutual respect across the team, going up and down, which is really unique.”
Playing with an expectation of being No. 1 demands perfection, but from the first-years to the graduate students, there is a common understanding that it’s okay to make mistakes. Everyone believes in each other “to get the job done,” as Halsey said.
Northwestern is capable of going undefeated in the Big Ten. It’s capable of a deep postseason run. It’s capable of being the last team standing. At the end of the day, however, what’s most important to the Wildcats is playing with each other.
“I can confidently say that winning makes everything worth it,” Skubisz said. “But practice day-to-day is just as fun as the games, which I’m really proud that the team has gotten to a point where that’s the truth.”