Northwestern team captain Mackenzie Keegan pushes the zone during a game against Iowa early this season. The 'Cats played two games in the Big Ten Tournament, winning against Rutgers but losing in an upset to Ohio State. Photos by Brandi Simpson / North by Northwestern

There’s no doubt that Northwestern field hockey (11-5 B1G) is having one of their best seasons in recent memory. With a dominating forward core featuring the likes of Second Team All-Big Ten midfielder Bente Baekers and Big Ten Freshman of the Year Maddie Zimmer, as well as a stingy defense that’s posted just 1.25 Goals Allowed Average over 16 games, the ’Cats are already in the midst of postseason play, finishing their play in the Big Ten Tournament this past week.

Unfortunately for the ’Cats, the tournament did not have the storybook ending they were hoping for; after beating Rutgers (9-6 B1G) 2-1 in their opening game, they were upset by Ohio State (7-9 B1G) 2-1 in the semifinal, ending their conference play for the season. While Northwestern still earned themselves a berth in the NCAA tournament, the loss to the Buckeyes certainly made things a lot harder for the team, as they will first have to “play in” with a game against Delaware (8-3 CAA).

Northwestern was led in their Big Ten effort by Baekers who scored a goal in each of the two matchups, including the game-winner against Rutgers and first-year goaltender Annabel Skubisz, who made nine saves over the two games to keep the ’Cats in close. In addition to these two stars, two Wildcats also made the All-Tournament team: senior defender Christen Conley, who recorded an assist, and sophomore defender Alia Marshall, both being cited as part of a stingy defensive performance for Northwestern.

Playing in the first game on April 21, the ’Cats opened their tournament play with an overpowering win over the Scarlet Knight—despite what the final score would imply. Northwestern dominated out of the gate, gaining three penalty corners in the first six minutes and outshooting Rutgers 4-1 in the opening frame with four shots on net, including a bouncing shot from the top of the key from senior forward Lakin Barry off the corner.

Northwestern midfielders huddle up before a penalty corner. Corner play was critical for the 'Cats against Rutgers, as they scored their first goal after a nice setup from the play. 

Following the opening frame, however, Rutgers began fighting back and matching the Wildcats’ energy; neither team seemed to be able to get a quality shot off, finishing the second frame with a shot apiece. For the Scarlet Knights, however,  first-year forward Bridy Molyneaux was able to capitalize on a nice pass across the box, tying the game with 12 minutes to play in the first half.

Following halftime, Rutgers completely flipped the momentum on Northwestern, outshooting the ’Cats 8-1, including three shots on goal. The Northwestern defense, however, held strong and was able to keep the ball out of the net. Meanwhile, the Wildcats were able to capitalize on their lone shot: a goal from Bente Baekers, following a field-wide pass from first-year midfielder Katie Jones and a nice juke on the side of the cage.

Although there was heart-stopping momentum for Rutgers, including a shot off the post, the ’Cats were able to play well enough defensively to keep the Scarlet Knights out of the goal, winning the game 2-1. Despite being outshot 10-6, quality over quantity was the name for Northwestern, recording six shots on goal to Rutgers’ four.

The following day, Northwestern played in the semifinal game against Ohio State; the Buckeyes, who began their season with seven straight losses, were on an underdog run for the ages, upsetting the No. 2 ranked Penn State 4-3 in overtime the day before. Despite Ohio State’s wonderful Cinderella story, Northwestern was keen to play the Evil Stepmother for the team, and clinch a spot in the championship game.

The game was an instant classic, as both teams traded shots, penalty corners and fantastic saves. For the second time in two days, Northwestern came out swinging, outshooting the Buckeyes 4-1 in the first frame with two penalty corners. The ’Cats, however, were unable to turn quantity into quality, recording just one shot on goal, a stellar save from Ohio State first-year goalkeeper Abby Danson.

Ohio State, eager to turn the ship around, began a fantastic run of their own in the second, flipping the script and outshooting the Wildcats 4-1. Unlike Northwestern, however, the Buckeyes were able to record every shot on goal, but ran into a white-hot goalie in Skubisz: the first-year goalie made four saves alone in the second-half.

Undeterred, the ’Cats continued to push in the third quarter, and finally broke through in the final minute. Following a nice push into the offensive zone by sophomore midfielder Ana Medina Garcia, Baekers was once again able to convert on a tough angle, firing in a backhand from the very left of the cage. Going into the final frame, Northwestern was leading 1-0, and was 15 minutes from a championship berth.

Baekers, seen here going for a loose ball against Iowa, once again played a critical role for the Wildcats in the tournament, scoring two goals over the team's two games. 

Ohio State, however, was not keen to go down without a fight, and began pushing back into their own offensive zone. Drawing a penalty corner, the Buckeyes were able to nicely set up sophomore midfielder and Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Mackenzie Allessie at the top, who fired a bullet into the back of the net and tied the game 1-1. Despite a quality chance for senior forward Mackenzie Keegan, Northwestern was unable to convert in regulation, and the two teams remained locked in a tie heading to extra time.

In the overtime period, Ohio State completely overran the ’Cats, as Northwestern did not record a possession in the offensive zone. Playing keep-away and stretching Northwestern, it only took a dribbling shot from junior forward Tess Maloney from outside the zone to win the game for the Buckeyes, ending Northwestern’s chances for a Big Ten title.

Key for the ’Cats in the two games played was shot total and offensive possession; Northwestern was outshot 10-6 and 11-7 by Rutgers and Ohio State respectively, and despite fantastic defensive performances, including a six-save performance by Skubisz against the Buckeyes, it would end up dooming the ’Cats down the stretch.

Despite lacking an appearance in the championship game, Northwestern’s season is far from over, as they earned a bid to the 12-team NCAA tournament Saturday night. Playing in the first round, the ’Cats will travel to Chapel Hill, North Carolina on April 30 to take on the Delaware Blue Hens, the Colonial Athletic Association champion. If the ’Cats can manage to dispatch the Blue Hens, they’ll face a familiar foe in the second round: Iowa (11-5 B1G).

Here’s hoping they saved their best shots for last.

On to Chapel Hill.