When the halftime whistle blew during Northwestern’s Thursday field hockey matchup against Maryland, it was facing what many would call a first-world problem.
Northwestern was up by two goals. Senior goalie Annabel Skubisz was proving why she was the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week by thwarting most of Maryland’s attempts to find the back of the net, tallying a game-high five saves in the second quarter. And yet, the Wildcats weren’t satisfied.
But if you looked beyond the surface, you could see why.
To start the game, the Wildcats scored a whopping three goals in 16 minutes. Fifth-year Linsdey Frank found the back of the net eight minutes into the game by virtue of an assist from Lauren Wadas, recording her first goal of the season. Four minutes later, another fifth-year scored: this time it was Alia Marshall, who sprinted down from midfield and got past three different defenders to tack on another point for her team.
“I got the ball in the middle of the field and I was looking for my teammates,” Marshall said of her goal. “(Maryland’s) defenders jumped on my teammates, which left the center open for me to do quick little pulls and then just a nice little finish over the goalie.”
A minute into the second quarter, Marshall contributed once again, completing a long pass to fifth-year and team goal-scoring leader Peyton Halsey that led to Halsey’s 11th goal of this season. However, the rest of that quarter felt like an offensive momentum halt for the Wildcats.
In that second quarter, Maryland scored in that quarter to turn the score from 3-0 to 3-1, and outshot the Wildcats 9-7. Out of the seven shots that NU made, four of them were stopped by Maryland goalie Alyssa Kebasko. In other words, a game that was once dominated by Northwestern suddenly felt winnable for the Terrapins.
But given the mindset that Northwestern entered the game in, there was no way it was going to settle for just leading the game. It wanted to have total control.
Headed into Thursday’s matchup, NU already had a share of the Big Ten regular season title by virtue of its win over Rutgers on Sunday. However, as Wadas said before the game against Maryland, just getting a share of the title wasn’t enough — it wanted the whole thing. This was a team that settled for nothing less than perfection, and that wasn’t going to change after the second quarter.
So during halftime, head coach Tracey Fuchs knew she needed to make adjustments. And to her, adjustments meant having her team put more pressure on the ball.
“I thought Maryland had a great second quarter,” Fuchs said after the game. “We were sitting back a little bit — we tweaked the way we were pressing their backs. So we pinched in and we really wanted them to play on the outside because we’re really good and swarming and really putting pressure on the ball. Once we got pressure on the ball, I thought we did a great job.”
To Marshall, team changes during halftime were also mental ones. She mentioned the team, especially the younger players, tends to get frantic when things don’t go its way, and she felt it was her role as one of the more experienced players to help snap the team out of panic mode.
“The scoreboard makes it seem like we didn’t, but there were definitely moments, especially in the second quarter, when we were under a lot of pressure,” Marshall said. “We hadn’t gone to our attacking circle as much as we had in the first quarter, so (we found) ways to stay calm, cool, collected, and get back to our tempo play.”
And just like that, Northwestern was back in its groove during the second half of the game. As Fuchs wanted, the team started putting more offensive pressure, as Marshall drew a penalty corner 25 seconds into the third quarter. Two minutes later, Marshall drew another corner, and both she and Lauren Hunter assisted on a goal scored by first-year Ilse Tromp.
While the Wildcats’ offense was getting hot, the defense didn’t let up in the third quarter either. Maryland failed to score on the two consecutive corners it drew in this quarter, with Skubisz saving the first shot and the NU defense blocking the next one. Fuchs credits Northwestern assistant coach Georgia Holland for running and making the team’s corner defense what it is.
“You have to be so brave on penalty corner defense — the ball is hard and a little bit bigger than a golf ball,” Fuchs said. “Our corner percentage has been amazing all year... kudos to (Holland) and the rest of our staff for a job well done.”
The final quarter was the icing on top for the Wildcats. They subbed out several of their starters, Skubisz made another save, and the Terrapins could not score once again. Junior Regan Cornelius, who only came into the game at the end of the third quarter, shot from right outside the crease to make the score 5-1, where it would stay for good.
With this win, the Wildcats gained sole possession of the Big Ten regular-season title for the first time since 1994 and finished the season 8-0 in Big Ten regular season play — their first time going undefeated in conference play since 1988. They now head into the Big Ten Tournament as the No. 1 seed for the first time in program history. And to add on, their 16-game win streak is the longest they have had since 1990.
So yeah, that’s a lot of firsts. And those firsts are a further testament to the fact that this year’s Northwestern team doesn’t have a “survive and advance” mentality. It wasn’t only aiming for the grand prize, but also every single checkpoint that came along with it. Yes, the Wildcats won a national title back in 2021. But this year, the team is looking to add every possible accomplishment onto its ever-growing season resume.
Simply put, this year’s Northwestern field hockey team has a certain spark to it that’s unlike any other that’s been fielded by the program before.
“There’s been teams in the past where I’m like, ‘Oh, are we ready?’” Fuchs said. “This team has been ready since game one. Even in that game we lost, we performed okay.”
Marshall thinks that the Wildcats are also better from a technical perspective this year. She says that the team retains the same athleticism and speed that they had in years past, but now they have more depth. This held true against Maryland, where Northwestern had five different goal-scorers for five goals.
“We have a lot of people contributing in big ways instead of having a few people doing a lot of big things,” Marshall said.
Northwestern now has its eyes on next week’s Big Ten Tournament in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where it will have a first-round bye and start straight from the semifinals. It hasn’t captured a conference tournament crown since 2014, so that will be another item on the team’s bucket list in a season where it seems to be earning everything.
For Fuchs, the start of the tournament feels like the start of an entirely new season.
“Season number two is over,” Fuchs said. “We did what we had to do... there’s another trophy up for grabs. That was our goal set out: to vie for regular season, vie for [Big Ten] Tournament, and then make a run in the NCAA (Tournament). So far we checked all the boxes, but season number three starts on Sunday.”