It’s almost fall. The leaves will change color, the temperatures will get cooler and yes, for many, that means football — but at Northwestern, it also means it’s time for one of the school’s best programs to take the field. After not having made it past the Final Four in 46 seasons, Northwestern won its first championship in 2021 and made it to the final game once again last season. Here are some questions the Wildcats will need to address as they look to continue their streak of success.
1. What does the offense look like without Bente Baekers?
Baekers helped propel Northwestern to a top-10 offense, scoring 25 of the team’s 62 goals. The four-time All-American led the nation in goals and ranked second in points. Statistics like that were not just a feature of an experienced player, as the Netherlands native had led the ‘Cats in points and goals for the past four seasons.
No matter how talented of a pitch Tracey Fuchs fields, the absence of Baekers clearly creates a gaping hole — a testament to her talent and becoming, well, one of the all-time greatest collegiate field hockey players. The answer to how to create another top offense lies in returning players.
Peyton Halsey has the potential to be the offensive leader this season. With 13 goals and 30 assists, no other player aside from Baekers, who led in these categories, stands close. While the reigning captain has big expectations waiting for her, Lauren Wadas, who had six goals in 2022, could step up to become a more frequent scorer. Another player who may have a breakout season and establish herself is Lane Herbert. The junior faced limited minutes last season but still managed four goals in 666 minutes over 25 games.
Northwestern is used to having a top-tier attack, and while there are many players who can easily help tally goals, Baekers is not easily replaceable.
2. Who will step up on defense?
Northwestern’s defense loses two notable players in Shannon Daley and Kayla Blas. The two backs helped anchor the defense in front of Annabel Skubisz, along with midfielder Alia Marshall. Having two such experienced players in that position was not something the ‘Cats took for granted in their back-to-back championship appearances. In particular, Blas was a player constantly on the field. Her 1,548 minutes were second to only Skubisz, and were 79 minutes more than Ana Medina Garcia, who ranked third last season.
With one of the best goalkeepers in the country returning for her senior year, the Wildcats are fortunate, but a few backs will step up and face a steep incline in minutes this season. Northwestern does have Marshall, a midfield and back, returning for her fifth year. She had the second-most assists on the team last season, behind Blas, and can be expected to log plenty of more. But, eyes will be on who is playing exclusively as a back and standing near Skubisz. Lauren Hunter has logged a decent amount of field time, albeit not as a starter, appearing in every game over her first two seasons. Maja Zivojnovic started off her first year strong, starting the first 11 games of the season before getting injured.
Hunter and Zivojnovic will likely claim the starting back positions, and as a junior and sophomore, it could be nice to have some ‘Cats who are bound to be back garner that experience.
3. Two titles in three seasons?
There are lots of expectations for certain players, and a standard for the type of field hockey Northwestern is supposed to excel at. But, at the end of the day, all these intended achievements come down to one thing: the belief that Northwestern can win another championship.
Last season ended in heartbreak. North Carolina scored in the second quarter, and it wasn’t until there was a minute and 59 seconds left that Baekers delivered the ‘Cats their first goal of the game to even the score. But, as the momentum seemed it would change for NU, the opposite happened, and Erin Matson delivered the game-winner — the season winner — less than a minute later.
Teams can’t live in the past, but this chip on the Wildcats’ shoulders isn’t going anywhere. With a combination of pure talent and determination to avenge last season, a second championship in three years is what this team is aiming for.