One of the best elements of sports is the success of a “wildcard” team. Teams with this status are usually designated as such due to an imperfect regular season, but still earn a spot in the playoffs due to their successes; they just draw a much harder path to the crown than other, more successful teams. Testing their resolve, wildcard teams have become some of the best stories in sports history, as they overcome the challenges of mighty powerhouses to earn the chance to be crowned an unlikely champion.
After a regular season that was marred with challenges and drawbacks, Northwestern field hockey (16-5, 5-3 B1G) looks to be the next of these great success stories. The ’Cats clawed their way into the NCAA Final Four on Sunday after being named an at-large team to start the tournament. Facing two stellar teams in two-time defending champion No. 8 North Carolina (13-7, 4-2 ACC) on Friday and Big Ten-rival No. 3 Iowa (17-3, 7-1 B1G), the Wildcats defeated both teams 2-0 and 1-0 respectively, earning their first bid to the semifinals since 1994.
As the final scores suggest, the games were defined by stellar defensive play. The ’Cats were led by sophomore goalkeeper Annabel Skubisz, who made six saves – four against North Carolina and two against Iowa – to backstop the team to victory.
Also shining for the ’Cats were sophomore midfielder and first team All-Big Ten selection Maddie Zimmer, who recorded a highlight-reel goal against North Carolina to clinch the game for Northwestern, and junior midfielder Ana Medina Garcia, who recorded three shots on goal and scored once. It was sophomore midfielder Lauren Wadas, however, who came away the hero for Northwestern, scoring the game-winning goal against Iowa in the game’s final minutes.
Following a shootout loss to No. 2 Michigan (16-5, 5-3 B1G) in the Big Ten tournament, the ’Cats entered the NCAA tournament with a rough pool play, first taking on the defending champion North Carolina Tar Heels in Iowa City. The Tar Heels, who came into the tournament with the fourth-best scoring offense in the country, looked to be a worthy challenger for Northwestern, as the two teams traded possession throughout the game. Neither goalie cracked under the pressure, however, and the squads headed into the fourth quarter scoreless.
With just over 11 minutes left to play, however, Medina Garcia broke through for Northwestern. After a nice set-up pass from Wadas from the corner, graduate forward Clara Roth pulled a shot off the post and sent first-year goalie Abigail Taylor flying. With the ball bouncing to her, Medina Garcia fired a nice shot into the cage, giving the ’Cats the first lead of the game.
North Carolina didn’t go down without a fight however, and quickly turned on the counterattack. Skubisz, standing tall for the ’Cats, made two saves in the fourth quarter and backstopped the defensive stand. With three minutes left to play, Skubisz made a nice kick save on a tough shot from the top of the field, and Zimmer – seeing an opportunity – took the ball coast-to-coast down the field, firing a shot which iced the game for Northwestern.
While it was certainly a win to remember, the ’Cats still had their work cut out for them, playing No. 3 Iowa after just a day’s rest. Plenty of storylines were at play for Northwestern, as the game was an exact rematch of the team’s Elite Eight loss last year – in which Iowa stomped the team enroute to the Final Four – as well as the second matchup between the NCAA’s second-best and third-best scoring offenses. Despite all of this, however, the ’Cats showed no signs of distress heading into the big match.
What followed was almost complete and total domination from the ’Cats from the opening draw, as Northwestern seemed to play the entire game in the Iowa zone. Firing 13 shots to Iowa’s five, the ’Cats were clicking and firing on all cylinders, but were unable to beat senior goalie and second team All-Big Ten selection Grace McGuire.
With a brick wall in the net for the Hawkeyes and the final minutes dwindling down, it looked as though the ’Cats would once again enter overtime play, something which had hurt the team all year. Pushing the tempo into the final minute of play, Wadas took the ball, tried to shake off the three defenders circling around her, and fired a laser of a backhand shot from the top of the key.
It was all it took to send the ’Cats to their first Final Four in 27 years.
It’s certainly a happy moment for Northwestern, but the fight is far from over, as they’ll head to Ann Arbor, Michigan on Friday to take on No. 10 Harvard (17-1, 7-0 Ivy League) in the semifinal. The Crimson, themselves a wild card team, earned their spot by beating NU-rival Michigan in the Elite Eight, and have made a name of their own with their fantastic defensive play, placing first in the NCAA in save percentage, and sixth in scoring margin. With Skubisz manning the nets for Northwestern and the constant scoring threat of Wadas and the rest of the offense, however, it’s incredibly hard not to pick the ’Cats in this one.
They’re called “wildcards” for a reason. Let’s see them pull this off.