For the first time since 2018, Northwestern field hockey came out of its first match winless. Even though the ‘Cats outshot No. 9 Louisville 21-3, the Cardinals snatched the road victory at Lakeside Field on Sunday afternoon with a third-quarter goal by fifth-year midfielder Emilia Kaczmarczyk.
Coming in, both schools had a history of playing each other tightly; NU beat Louisville in overtime during the second round of the 2017 postseason to advance to the NCAA Quarterfinals. Ultimately, this top-10 tilt was another close battle, though Northwestern constantly seemed to put itself on the verge of breaking the match open.
Even without First Team All-American midfielder Maddie Zimmer, who will not play for the ‘Cats this season after earning a spot on the 2024 U.S. Olympic team, Northwestern’s offense seized momentum from the opening push back. A little over 90 seconds in, Alia Marshall drew a corner, which set up sophomore back Maja Zivojnovic for a shot on goal that was blocked by Louisville’s defense. That set the tone for the rest of the quarter. After a few minutes of alternating possession with the Cardinals, NU put up two more shots on target. Goalkeeper Merlijn van der Vegt saved one from Peyton Halsey and denied one from Chloe Relford near the end of the quarter with a kick save.
The second quarter was even more lopsided, with the Wildcats slapping nine shots and three on goal. Tracey Fuchs’ highly-touted first-years made their presences felt, as Olivia Bent-Cole and Ella Kokinis pressured the defense with the first two shots of the period. Although Louisville blocked both of those, the ‘Cats got closer and closer to putting one in the net. In a 10-second sequence, Lane Herbert forced van der Vegt to make another save before Zivojnovic fired a shot off the post.
The same sequence kept repeating itself: pressure from Northwestern, a shot, a save and a deflection off a rebound that ended up away from the goal. Going into halftime, Louisville hadn’t even mustered a corner nor a single shot, let alone one on goal. The Wildcats took 13, and six were on target. It was a suffocating defense led by van der Vegt, who had accrued six saves in the first 30 minutes, that primarily kept NU off the scoreboard.
Six minutes into the third quarter, the Cardinals drew their first corner of the game. That was all they needed to break through, as Kaczmarczyk netted Louisville’s first shot of the game past Annabel Skubisz to score the only goal of the match. Off the corner pass from Aimee Plumb, Mia Duchars lightly tapped it over to Kaczmarczyk, throwing off the NU defense. Anticipating the shot from Duchars, Northwestern keeper Annabel Skubisz lost her balance, which left an open path for Kaczmarczyk to bury the decisive goal.
From there, Northwestern continued to bring as much offensive pressure as it could. The ‘Cats fired off five more shots in the third quarter, but they were all either blocked by Louisville’s defense or saved by van der Vegt. As the clock began ticking down, Louisville’s defense only got stiffer. Even though Fuchs pulled Skubisz with a few minutes to go, the Wildcats only managed to get two shots off. The Cardinals controlled the pace and came away with the season-opening win in Evanston.
All in all, it was a remarkable performance for van der Vegt. They faced 21 shots — shattering their highest total in a shutout — and saved nine of them. A career performance like that against the national runner-ups is quite the way to introduce yourself to a new team. The backs also passed their tough test with flying colors; Julie Kouijzer played all 60 minutes and constantly snuffed out NU’s threats on goal with deflections.
While Northwestern couldn’t capitalize, there were a lot of positives to take away. The first one is that the end result was a massive anomaly. Since at least 2009, which is about as far as the detailed box scores from NUSports.com go, Northwestern has never put up 20 or more shots in a match without scoring a goal. Additionally, NU hasn’t ever outshot a team by 18 or more without coming away with a win.
Let’s take a wild guess, and assume that both of those facts hold true for several years prior to that. This was a truly unprecedented result for Northwestern, one that would fit just perfectly in a Jon Bois video. Although the ‘Cats somehow lost, they applied immense offensive pressure and dominated in that regard against a top-10 team in the country. If they can outshoot other opponents by this much — whether it’s Iowa or the worst team on their schedule — then it’s very, very likely they will win an overwhelming amount of their contests.
Northwestern may not have been able to finish, but it’s pretty clear that the offense will at least able to generate a steady threat despite losing two All-Americans in Bente Baekers and Zimmer. Even better, it was some of the younger players who led the way. Zivojnovic, Bent-Cole and Ilse Tromp — a sophomore and two first-years making their debuts, respectively — put up a combined 10 shots and six on goal. The defense, with the exception of its mistimed adjustment on Louisville’s one successful corner, also played well.
The competition won’t get much easier for now, as Northwestern heads to College Park, Maryland to face No. 17 Boston College on Friday and No. 20 Duke on Sunday in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. But, if Fuchs’ squad can continue to apply the pressure it did in Evanston, wins will come quickly.