At this point in the season, Northwestern Field Hockey has minimal room for error. Currently on the bubble of reaching the NCAA tournament, the No. 10 Wildcats (12-5, 4-2 B1G) took on a surging Kent State (9-6) team on Sunday morning at Lakeside Field in Evanston, seeking a confidence-boosting win. Behind a hat trick from redshirt freshman Bente Baekers, Northwestern delivered, matching their largest margin of victory all season with a 5-0 win.
“Against Rutgers and in this game we really put everything together and finished,” said first-year Alia Marshall. Added Coach Tracey Fuchs, "We're really focusing on what we do well. We're generating a lot of attack and putting goals away."
As the stats show, Northwestern – donning pink uniforms for their annual pink game – flat-out dominated Kent State all game. The Wildcats had five corners compared to zero for the Kent State, and recorded 18 shots to the Golden Flashes’ one; Kent State’s lone shot was recorded with just over four minutes to play, and was easily kicked away by NU goalkeeper Florien Marcussen. The Wildcats dominated the time of possession battle and simply looked quicker and crisper than their opponents.
"We played good team defense. It started with our forwards, and the midfield was able to intercept. We're gonna need that and more against Iowa next weekend," said Fuchs.
Kent State is no pushover, either; the Golden Flashes were coming off a five-game winning streak and have a top-25 win under their belt.
With her third hat trick of the year, Baekers showed that she will be the key to Northwestern’s NCAA tournament hopes. Baekers now has 22 goals on the season, making her the leading scorer in the entire NCAA. When she is on like she was Sunday, Northwestern poses a threat to any opponent. However, Baekers prefers to emphasize the team over her individual accomplishments.
"It's really a team effort. If no one passes the ball to me, I can't score," she said.
The game was scoreless for much of the first quarter until the aforementioned Marshall scored her first career goal – assisted by Lakin Berry – two minutes after being subbed into the game. From there, the Wildcats were in control offensively, firing off four more shots before Baekers’ goal early in the second quarter. Minutes later, Mackenzie Keegan deflected a Peyton Halsey shot into the goal to extend the lead to 3-0. With the way both teams were playing, the game already felt out of reach.
With under a minute left in the fourth quarter, senior Lily Gandhi was removed from the game with an injury. There were no immediate updates from Coach Fuchs, but the injury did not appear to be too serious. The midfielder has been a constant for Northwestern over the last couple seasons and was awarded preseason Big Ten honors.
At first glance, it appears odd that Northwestern is fighting for a postseason berth with a top-10 ranking. Two factors that are working against Northwestern are their strong conference and their RPI ranking. The Wildcats can make the NCAA Tournament by winning the Big Ten Tournament or by securing one of eight at-large bids. The Wildcats are currently fourth in the Big Ten, and their chances of winning the conference and securing an automatic berth are slim. When it comes to selecting at-large bids, the most important metric used is RPI, where Northwestern is ranked 15th. If enough teams above Northwestern in RPI do not win their conference, the Wildcats could be in trouble.
Sunday’s dominating win over a top-40 opponent can only help Northwestern. However, their next game at No. 8 Iowa will be far more important. The Wildcats can leapfrog the Hawkeyes with a win, and the selection committee would certainly notice a top-10 road win over a conference rival. A loss would potentially drop the ‘Cats to fifth in the conference and put a lot more pressure on them as they enter the Big Ten Tournament.
Northwestern will take on Iowa at noon on Saturday before concluding their regular season at home vs. Indiana on Nov. 1.
All stats provided by Sidearm Stats.