After No. 1 Northwestern (17-1, 6-0 B1G) capped off its regular season with both a regular season conference and tournament title, the ‘Cats now look toward the NCAA tournament this week.
Because of the 29-team field, the top three seeds (Northwestern followed by ACC foes Syracuse and Boston College — North Carolina earned the fourth seed) earned a first-round bye. The eight-seeded teams also get to have home-field advantage until they face a higher-seeded team, so Northwestern will be able to host until the penultimate Final Four, should it advance.
Tomorrow, Martin Stadium will welcome two fellow midwestern teams in the Central Michigan Chippewas and the Michigan Wolverines for a first-round matchup at 2:00 CT. The ‘Cats will then face off against the winner of this game at 11:00 CT on Sunday morning.
While Northwestern is more familiar with the Wolverines, having faced (and beaten) them twice this season — most recently in the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament, the team is still focused on taking each opponent day by day, as the postseason offers a clean slate for each team in the bracket.
“We hope to extend our season, every time we go out to play, but nothing is guaranteed,” head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said. “We know there’s a lot of good teams in the NCAA tournament, the only thing that the one seed is good for is to get us a home game this week. And if we can win, get us another home game. But ultimately draw a line in the sand and it’s anyone’s ballgame.”
This is the program’s 24th tournament appearance and fourth-straight year receiving a top-four seed. The ‘Cats are currently riding a 17-game win streak, good for the second-longest in the nation following fifth-seeded Denver, who enters the postseason at an unblemished 19-0.
However, at this stage in the season, the team knows it’s time to keep the momentum going rather than ride off of the fact it has played a lot of the other top-seeded (namely, ACC) teams in the tournament.
“We have gotten to the position we’re in based on the work we’ve put in so far,” graduate attacker and Tewaaraton finalist Izzy Scane said. “Now is not the time to stop, so we have to keep working hard, like we have all season, that’s the only reason we’ve been able to achieve what we have.”
While she wasn’t on the field playing during the heartbreaking NCAA semifinal loss to North Carolina last season, Scane still feels that the team pushed through every game this season with a chip on its shoulder.
“I feel that our players really feel the pain of what happened last year, not just at the end of the regular season, but in the semi-final.” Amonte Hiller said. “I think that each time they go out there they want to prove themselves and want to get better, and just want to play for each other.”
Another huge factor in earning a top-four seed is the ability to play at home, ultimately, until the Final Four should the ‘Cats advance to their fourth-straight appearance. The rest of the program’s quadrant features Stony Brook, Penn State, Fairfield and eight-seeded Loyola Maryland. Two of these teams are familiar opponents in the Seawolves and the Nittany Lions, but two are not.
Despite a strong season outlook and one of the top-ranked defenses in the nation, Stony Brook did not earn one of the top-eight seeds and will face off against Penn State in Baltimore, and Loyola will meet Fairfield. Should the Seawolves and the Greyhounds both win their respective matchups, they will square off, and the winner (if Northwestern advances over either Michigan-based team) would meet the Wildcats at Martin Stadium for a trip to the Final Four.
It’s no secret that the ‘Cats have had immense success, especially in the postseason, at home. In fact, Northwestern is 22-0 at home during the playoffs and has seen numerous attendance records broken this season, most recently over 1,900 fans for the season finale against Maryland.
We’re biased, but Martin Stadium and its overlooking views of the Chicago skyline and Lake Michigan are truly unmatched. This team, led by Scane with 108 points on 81 goals and 27 assists, Erin Coykendall (who was just named as one of five Tewaraaton finalists alongside Scane) with 48 goals and 43 assists, and Hailey Rhatigan with 63 points in 14 games (52G, 11A) is incredibly stacked and ready to roll.
So you, reader, should definitely be there on Sunday morning. It’s go time for the eighth national crown and the first since 2012.