Hearts raced and fingers crossed as senior goalie Annabel Skubisz squared off with North Carolina’s Ryleigh Heck in sudden death overtime. In the national championship, the last situation Northwestern wanted to find itself in was defending a penalty stroke.
As Skubisz lifted her stick to block the shot and send the game into double overtime, Northwestern was reminded of how far it has come as a program.
The Wildcats heartbreakingly fell 2-1 in shootouts, but that image of Skubisz, who led Northwestern to three championship appearances and its first-ever title as a sophomore, should be remembered. Her save gave the ‘Cats hope to keep on fighting when the odds were stacked against them.
“We never give up,” head coach Tracey Fuchs said. “That’s why we’re the Cardiac ‘Cats.”
The Tar Heels simply outplayed the Wildcats in the first half. It took less than 45 seconds for Northwestern to book a penalty corner and let a shot go, but that would be its only through two quarters. Even when Northwestern got its second corner opportunity with .7 seconds left in the latter frame, a shot was never fired. Meanwhile, North Carolina had six shots and rarely ever allowed Northwestern to take the ball into the circle.
North Carolina continued its dominance out of the half. In less than three minutes, first-year star Charly Bruder scored off a penalty corner for the lead. But once the ‘Cats came across a penalty stroke with 90 seconds left, they returned to usual form given the extra boost that Peyton Halsey’s goal delivered.
As the game went into an extra 20 minutes, through two extra quarters, each team came narrowly close to walking it off. Towards the end of the second overtime, Olivia Bent-Cole and Lauren Wadas had each set each other up on two breakaways but came up short in their respective opportunities.
What truly kept the ‘Cats in the game was Skubisz, who proved why she is the country’s best goalie in these pressure-filled situations. She had three saves in just the fifth quarter, including off a penalty corner and Heck’s stroke.
Ultimately, a game between the two best teams would last for as long as possible. It seemed the shootouts were where NU could claim its victory.
Northwestern made its first two strokes but wasn’t able to hit the boards on the last three. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels only made their first and fourth stroke. Fitting the game’s theme, five shootouts were not enough to determine a winner, calling for another pair. This time around, Halsey missed. Heck was then able to make hers and put North Carolina up 3-2 in shootouts to win.
There’s no way to sugarcoat how heartbreaking it is to have come just a shot away from the national title. It certainly doesn’t help to fall to North Carolina, which has now become Northwestern’s ultimate foe. The memory of now-head coach Erin Matson scoring the championship-winning goal last season against the ‘Cats is still too clear, but it will fade.
“You know it hurts today, but I think when we look back, we’ll be really, really proud,” Fuchs said.
And Northwestern should be proud. It should be proud for forcing two overtimes and shootouts, even though it lacked possession for the majority of the play. It should be proud of a season that had just one loss before the national championship game.
The ‘Cats should be proud that after only making the NCAA Tournament twice from 1995 to 2018, it just appeared in its fifth straight postseason and third straight championship. Just as Skubisz’s penalty stroke save gave the 2023 Wildcats hope to win, the program's overall success should give it hope that it’ll be raising the trophy soon again.
As Northwestern and North Carolina played for the crown these past two seasons, there was never a question that the two best teams made it to the final game. But the Tar Heels have always been a dynasty. They did just lock down their 11th title and fifth in six seasons. However, the Wildcats are now on the same level. That growth speaks volumes to Fuchs and every one of her players over the past five years.