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Field Hockey: Northwestern opens September with a bang

That’s three wins in a row for the new No. 3 team in the nation.

@NUFHCats / Twitter

After dropping its opener for the first time since 2018, the Northwestern field hockey team needed to regroup. Despite outshooting No. 9 (currently No. 5) Louisville by a staggering margin of 21-3, the Wildcats were unable to put a goal across and lost the match, 1-0. With the Big Ten/ACC Challenge coming up less than a week later, the ‘Cats had to adjust quickly.

Based off the title of this article, you’ve probably already figured out that the ‘Cats did indeed regain momentum. They opened the Big Ten/ACC Challenge with No. 16 (No. 17 at the time) Boston College, a team that Northwestern was 13-4 against all-time. However, all four of those losses were at neutral sites, and this game was played not in Boston or Evanston, but in College Park, Maryland. It was a real possibility that Northwestern could do what it did in 2021 and lose to BC at a neutral site during the inter-conference battle.

Luckily for the Wildcats, their neutral site woes did not carry over to 2023. The game started very similarly to the Louisville contest: Northwestern controlled the ball and the pace, and did not allow a shot in the first quarter. Unluckily for the Wildcats, their shooting struggles from that Louisville game did carry over. The pair of shots Northwestern mustered in the opening frame failed to even threaten the goal, with Olivia Bent-Cole’s getting blocked and Lauren Hunter’s going wide.

In the second quarter, Boston College bounced back, putting up a pair of shots within 15 seconds of each other less than two minutes in. However, both of those shots were swallowed up by 2022 All-West Second Team goalkeeper Annabel Skubisz. Skubisz also saved a shot off a penalty corner by Lafayette transfer Simone Hefting later in the period, but her counterpart, Golden Eagles goalkeeper Caroline Kelly, was no slouch. Kelly, twice a Second Team All-Conference player while at Boston University, saved all three shots directed at her in the quarter to match Skubisz. Once again, Northwestern went to halftime locked in a scoreless tie.

That tie would remain for the remainder of regulation. Despite a ferocious attack midway through the third period that saw Alia Marshall take four penalty corners in a mere 30 seconds, Northwestern was unable to get its first goal of the season. The fourth quarter was no better for either squad, with Skubisz saving two more shots and the Wildcats failing to even get a shot on goal.

In the game’s extra period, though, things would flip. Despite finishing second on the team with 13 goals in 2022, graduate midfielder Peyton Halsey hadn’t taken a shot all game. That changed just under six minutes into the overtime period. Halsey received a beautiful pass from center back Ilse Tromp (who was playing in her second collegiate game), and slotted a shot past Kelly to open the scoring. It was Northwestern’s first goal of the season, and it gave the team its first win of the year, beating the Eagles 1-0.

Following that momentum boost, the ‘Cats faced another ranked foe in No. 13 Duke. The Blue Devils traditionally had found success against the Wildcats, with Northwestern holding a 5-8 all-time record when the had two schools met.

It seemed as though another loss would be added to that record after 10 minutes of play. Despite allowing just one goal in her first 127 minutes of play to begin the year, Skubisz gave up two in only 10 minutes to Duke.

Luckily for Skubisz, the offense had gotten a taste of scoring in the previous contest. It was hungry for more. Bent-Cole, the first-year who had already taken five shots to begin the year, earned the first goal of her collegiate career on the sixth. The shot was a much-needed adrenaline booster for the team, and it clearly carried over into the next three quarters.

Bent-Cole’s goal was scored after Duke misplayed a ball in the shooting circle. That theme held for the next goal as well, after sophomore Maja Zivojnovic ripped a powerful shot off the right goalpost. Duke couldn’t pounce on the ricochet, but the graduate student Marshall could. She easily tapped the ball into the back of the net to tie the game at 2-2 just over eight minutes into the second quarter.

The go-ahead goal came in the third quarter, and was, of course, on a loose ball in the shooting circle. After a powerful shot by Lane Herbert went wide, Duke once again failed to cover the ball. That left an opportunity for Chloe Relford, who slotted the ball past Duke’s prone goalkeeper to give the Wildcats the lead. After 22 minutes of Duke ferociously trying (and failing) to tie the game again, Northwestern escaped with a 3-2 win and an unblemished record at the ACC/Big Ten Challenge for the second straight year.

The third game of the road trip saw the Wildcats travel to Burlington, Vermont to take on the Catamounts. Much like the Duke game, the contest against Vermont saw a fast offensive start. This time, however, the offense was on Northwestern’s side, as the Wildcats scored both their goals in the first half. The first came from Halsey — the first player to notch multiple goals on the year — and the second came from Zivojnovic in the second quarter. The goal was the first of her career, a wonderful start to 2023 after she suffered a season-ending injury last September.

The defense also returned to its lockdown ways, led by Skubisz. The senior earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors for her efforts (the third such award of her career), which resulted in 13 saves and just two goals allowed over the course of the three games. While the award failed to account for her shutout of Vermont (it was voted on the day before), that game remains important. It was the 12th shutout of Skubisz’s career, moving her into sole possession of sixth the all-time Northwestern leaderboard.

The Wildcat offense has also gotten back on track. After failing to convert any of their 21 shots against Louisville, the ‘Cats’ scorers have begun attacking with a vengeance. They’ve converted six of their 42 shots over the last three games, and that mark of two goals per game is on track to be top-40 in the nation, rather than the current slot of 56th. If the team can continue being aggressive, and young players like Bent-Cole and Tromp can continue taking advantage of their opportunities, the high rate of scoring should last for the rest of the season.

That production is extremely likely to last at least past the weekend. The team is back on the road to take on Maine on Friday. NU will then stay in the Pine Tree State to take on UMass on Saturday. It will be the last weekend without Big Ten play, and Tracey Fuchs will look to iron out any remaining issues before conference play begins later this month.