Northwestern senior forward Mackenzie Keegan drives in a tough play during an April matchup against Iowa. Despite sweeping the Hawkeyes in the regular season, the Wildcats' season ended against Iowa in the NCAA tournament. Photo by Brandi Simpson / North by Northwestern

For Northwestern field hockey (12-6, 5-3 B1G), it was almost a year to remember. Being ranked fifth in the National Field Hockey Coaches’ Poll, winning clutch games over Iowa and Rutgers and earning an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament, the ’Cats had a lot to be excited about this year. Heading into the tournament, the team knew the stakes: beat Delaware (6-4, 3-2 CAA) and Iowa (12-5, 5-3 B1G), and they would earn their first Final Four berth since 1994.

Unfortunately, that plan failed in action. While the ’Cats were able to dominate Delaware 4-1 in the tournament opener, they were unable to replicate the feat against Iowa, dropping the quarterfinal match 3-1. Despite having swept the regular season series against the Hawkeyes, the ’Cats were overpowered in the second match, having been outshot 18-13 and were dominated in the defensive zone.

In their efforts, Northwestern was led by none other than sophomore forward Bente Baekers, who scored three goals for the ’Cats over the two games, including the game-winner against Delaware and the team’s lone score against Iowa. Northwestern also saw stellar performances from senior midfielder Christen Conley, who recorded three assists in the tournament, and sophomore midfielder Alia Marshall, who dished two assists against Delaware.

Play-in VS Delaware:

Sophomore midfielder Peyton Halsey pokes at a ball during a game against Iowa. Halsey netted her fifth goal of the season against Delaware to get the 'Cats on the board early. Photo by Brandi Simpson / North by Northwestern

Playing the first game against the Delaware Blue Hens– ranked No. 20 by the National Field Hockey Coaches Association– on April 30, the ’Cats opened their tournament with an offensive showcase, scoring four straight goals to win the game 4-1. Northwestern set the tone early, scoring just four minutes in on a top-shelf dazzler from sophomore midfielder Peyton Halsey.

Following the snipe, the ’Cats continued to control the game, holding possession and running circles around Delaware. Northwestern outshot the Blue Hens 7-4 over the first half, with Delaware recording just one shot in the second quarter, but the ’Cats were unable to capitalize. Junior goalkeeper Lizzie Gaebel stood tall for the Blue Hens, recording two saves in the second half.

Still dominating possession, however, the ’Cats continued to press in their offensive zone, shooting almost at-will, as they outshot Delaware 5-1 in the third quarter alone. The barrage finally paid off, as Northwestern picked up a key penalty corner, and Christen Conley set up an Alia Marshall feed perfectly for leading scorer Bente Baekers, who netted the game-winner on a flat shot down low.

Seemingly unsatisfied, Northwestern continued to press to the end of the third quarter, causing turnovers and forcing opportunities. With just over a minute to play, senior forward Lakin Berry forced a key loose ball, and it was all midfielder Maddie Zimmer– this season’s Big Ten Offensive Freshman of the Year– needed, as she fired a low shot past Gaebel to put the ’Cats up for good.

Following the outburst, the ’Cats sat back on the fruits of their labor in the fourth, and were outshot 5-2 in the final frame, including four shots on goal for Delaware. Baekers added an insurance goal early, and the Blue Hens were able to get on the board with a shot from junior back Grace Hoepfner, but it was too much: the ’Cats were moving on to the Elite Eight. Key in this victory was first-year goaltender Annabel Skubisz, who stopped six shots, including three in the final frame, to keep the ’Cats up.

Elite Eight VS Iowa:

Iowa defenders and junior goalkeeper Grace McGuire swarm Northwestern junior forward Liese Wareham. Iowa, playing their first game in over a week, was led by a stingy defense over an exhausted Wildcat team. Photo by Brandi Simpson / North by Northwestern

Going into the quarterfinal game against Iowa, hopes were high for Northwestern, as they had beaten their Big Ten rival twice already, and were eager to add a third. Unfortunately for the ’Cats, Iowa was given the luxury of a first-round bye, and looked incredibly fresh against Northwestern, posting a dominant defensive performance. Led by Big Ten and Defensive Player of the Year Anthe Nijzel, along with junior goaltender Grace McGuire, the Hawkeyes were able to keep the ’Cats out of their zone and net, securing a 3-1 victory.

To begin the game, the ’Cats and Hawkeyes once again came out swinging, trading possession, speed and shots: the two teams each recorded four shots, but Northwestern looked to be a dangerous threat early, as each of their shots was directed on net; McGuire, however, stood tall, and made saves on all four shots. Meanwhile, junior forward Ciara Smith netted an early goal for the Hawkeyes with their lone shot on goal, putting Iowa up 1-0 early.

The ’Cats, however, refused to quit, and stayed aggressive to begin the second quarter. It paid off, as Northwestern was awarded an early penalty corner, and set up none other than Bente Baekers for the game-tying goal. With 44 minutes to play, the teams were tied up at 1.

Baekers, seen here during a regular season matchup against the Hawkeyes, contributed the Wildcats lone goal in their 3-1 loss to Iowa in the NCAA Elite Eight. Photo by Brandi Simpson / North by Northwestern

Unfortunately for the ’Cats, Iowa was just as aggressive, and followed the goal with their own dominating possession skills. The Hawkeyes outshot Northwestern 6-2 over the second quarter, and quickly jumped on an opportunity, setting up a penalty corner and goal for senior forward Maddy Murphy. Iowa, with fresh legs and a fantastic defense behind them, was up 2-1 going into halftime.

Riding the momentum, Murphy scored again for the Hawkeyes early in the third quarter to put Iowa up 3-1, and the Hawkeyes continued to just run circles around Northwestern, outshooting the ’Cats 7-4. The stingy ball control, along with a potent Iowa defense, proved too much for the Wildcats, and the team watched their season end in a 3-1 loss to Iowa.

What went wrong for Northwestern? Exhaustion might have had an impact, as it’s always much easier to play a game following a week’s rest rather than a day’s. Iowa, who had given Northwestern scoring trouble in their regular season matchups (just three goals over two games), was simply prepared for a worn-out team, and played to their strengths to punch their ticket back to the Final Four.

There is a lot of upside, however. Northwestern will return most of its production next year, including leading scorer Bente Baekers, first-year stud Maddie Zimmer and first-year goaltender Annabel Skubisz. With this core and a promising season behind them, maybe next season will finally be the year the ’Cats return to the Final Four.

Hopefully with more rest next time.

Already waiting for next season. Photo by Brandi Simpson / North by Northwestern