Northwestern senior midfielder Mackenzie Keegan drives the ball for the Wildcats during a game against Iowa earlier this season. In a season filled with ups and downs, Northwestern will be looking to finish the year with a fantastic performance in the NCAA tournament. Photo by Brandi Simpson / North by Northwestern

A fantastic goal-scoring threat. One of the stingiest defenses in the country. A flair for the dramatic. All of these phrases certainly apply to Northwestern field hockey (11-5 B1G) who currently sit at fifth in the latest National Field Hockey Coaches’ Association poll and will play in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Friday. The Wildcats, heading to their third tournament in four seasons, are a special group who have already shaken up the polls several times this season, with fantastic wins over No. 8 Rutgers (9-6 B1G) and No. 4 Iowa (11-5 B1G).

Now, however, begins the final test for Northwestern, as they go for what has eluded the team since 1994: a Final Four appearance. But who’s going to carry them there? What storylines are going to have an impact on the game? And what challenges will the ’Cats face on their path to eternal glory? This article aims to answer some of these questions, as well as build the hype around this fantastic team.

Let’s give this a fair shot.

Defense wins Championships:

Senior midfielder Christen Conley defends the net for Northwestern. The Wildcats are led in their victories by a stingy defense that has just 1.38 Goals Allowed on Average. Photo by Brandi Simpson / North by Northwestern

We need to get this out of the way: if you tune into a Northwestern game, you’re not going to see an offensive showcase, nor amazing goal totals. What you’re going to see is a masterful game of chess, filled with passing schemes and great defensive work, especially through the neutral zone: the ’Cats are led by a fantastic group of midfielders that know how to push play and protect their own cage.

Of 16 games that the Wildcats played this season, 13 have been decided by just one goal, with Northwestern winning eight of those. With a 1.38 Goals Allowed on Average — meaning that statistically, Northwestern is expected to give up 1.38 goals per game — the ’Cats hold one of the best goals defense in the Big Ten.

Northwestern’s stingy defensive strategy, as discussed, is the result of a fantastic neutral zone scheme; in basic terms, this means that when an opposing offense tries to push the ball towards the Northwestern net, the ’Cats work to push the ball back, and keep it as far away from the cage as possible; this approach has largely worked, holding opponents to just 143 shots over 16 games, with just 83 getting on net. The Wildcats have always been known for their stingy midfield, and this year, the ’Cats boast a triple threat of play-pushers: Kayla Blas, Maddie Zimmer and Peyton Halsey.

Blas and Zimmer don’t always appear on the scoresheet — scoring just four and seven points respectively— but their work in the scheme has not gone unnoticed by opponents. Both were honored by the Big Ten by being named First Team All-Big Ten, honoring them two of the best in the league. Zimmer separately added the distinct honor of being the Big Ten Freshman of the Year; the first-year is already adding an impact.

Pushing the play off the play of Zimmer and Blas is sophomore midfielder Peyton Halsey, who appears more often on the stat sheet with 11 points and 27 shots. Halsey could often be seen as a spark plug for the offense, taking passes and helping set up scoring chances in the zone, or taking shots for herself.

Behind them all is usually first-year goalkeeper Annabel Skubisz, who has started 12 games this year for Northwestern. Skubisz is not always perfect, but she is an up-and-coming talent who has stepped up big for the ’Cats in critical games this season, including their Big Ten Tournament win over Rutgers and a shutout over conference-winning Michigan. With an 8-4 record and 52 saves this season, it’s safe to assume the first-year will be in the cage for the Wildcats’ NCAA tournament game.

Okay, okay. We’ve gotten through the defense, but now you wanna see highlights right? Well, look no further…

Back to Baekers:

Midfielder Bente Baekers rushes the ball during the game against Kent State last season. Baekers currently sits at 17th in the NCAA with 1.81 points per game, and has helped Northwestern win some critical games down the stretch. Photo by Maren Kranking / North by Northwestern

There’s no point delaying the obvious: the star of the show for Northwestern this season is sophomore midfielder Bente Baekers, who leads the team with 12 goals, 29 points and four game-winning goals, including two against No. 4 Iowa and one against No. 8 Rutgers. There’s no overstating how good Baekers is; she currently sits at 17th in the country with 1.81 points per game, and was named Second Team All-Big Ten for her efforts.

Baekers is a true offensive threat, seemingly able to score from anywhere and possessing a fantastic backhand shot that has beat some of the best goaltenders in the Big Ten this season. What’s more, Baekers possesses both the uncanny ability to push the zone by herself and set up scoring chances, as well as plant herself for the shot off the rush.

Beyond Baekers, however, Northwestern posts an interesting offensive threat, flanked by sophomore midfielder Ana Medina Garcia, who is second on the team in points with 14, and the aforementioned Halsey, who comes in third with 11. Both sophomores have also shown flashes of dominance this year, especially Halsey, who was named the first Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week this season after two key wins against Michigan State and Maryland.

The three are a deadly trio for Northwestern, allowing the ’Cats to take a whopping 14 shots per game and score 2.25 goals per game, creating a presence that’s not to be messed with in the offensive zone. The crew is also extremely aggressive and able to draw penalty corners – a key play in field hockey, in which the offense gets the chance to circle the net unopposed and set up a nice play to win. This season, Northwestern has drawn 97 penalty corners, and 6.06 per game – good for 24th in the NCAA.

The 'Cats set up for a corner play. Northwestern has drawn 97 total penalty corners so far this year, highlighting an aggressive and skilled offensive attack. Photo by Brandi Simpson / North by Northwestern 

Beyond the flashy goals and penalty corners, there is a clear offensive scheme that’s filled with long passes and nice set-ups. The ’Cats have notched 32 assists this season to their opponents’ 21, and they record 61% of their total shots on net. With 1.94 assists per game, Northwestern sits at 19th in the country.

With fantastic neutral zone play and amazing passes, Northwestern may have a shot to push themselves far into the tournament and reach the championship for the first time in school history. Several factors, however, stand in the way for the ’Cats, including homesickness – seriously.

Home Sweet Home?

Northwestern sophomore midfielder Peyton Halsey strides up the field during a game at Lakeside Field earlier this season. While Northwestern is a tough opponent in any regard this season, the team has struggled while not at home, with a 5-5 record away from Lakeside. Photo by Brandi Simpson / North by Northwestern

Northwestern may have an issue travelling. While the team has posted 11 wins this season, the ’Cats are 6-0 at home, 1-3 away and 4-2 at neutral sites: a critical thing to remember, considering the NCAA tournament is held at the home of No. 1 seed North Carolina. If the ’Cats want to go far in this tournament, they’ll have to go on the road, away from their home fans and find a way to punch through Delaware (6-3 CAA) and familiar foe Iowa (11-5 B1G).

Of course, we shouldn’t count our chickens — or in Delaware’s case, Blue Hens — before they hatch. Delaware has had a phenomenal year this year, winning the Colonial Athletic Association tournament in style with a 4-3 win in the championship and posting several fantastic statistics, including 2.67 goals per game and recording 50% of their shots on goal. Northwestern will have to rely on their defense once again to oust the Blue Hens and make it into the second round, where, if they win, they will face Iowa for the third time this season; Northwestern currently holds a 2-0 record over the Hawkeyes, and could possibly go for the sweetest win in rivalry history.

Simply put, Northwestern has a fantastic chance to make their first Final Four in 27 years, but it’ll rely on several factors: can their offense step up? Can the ’Cats do alright away from their home turf? And will Bente Baekers continue to absolutely dominate the competition?

In a year filled with questions, Northwestern’s first national championship might be one of the best answers.

Bend, don't break. Photo by Brandi Simpson / North by Northwestern