Rested Wildcats down No. 15 Spartans again

Lightning normally does more harm than good, but over the weekend it possibly turned around the Northwestern field hockey team’s season.

Friday night’s match against No. 15 Michigan State was postponed a day due to inclement weather and that extra day of rest enabled junior midfielder Nicole Smith — who is nursing a knee injury and would not have played Friday — to start both weekend games and lead her team to a 3-2 upset of the Spartans and a 4-0 win over Providence on Sunday.

The win over Michigan State gave NU (4-5, 1-0 Big Ten) their first Big Ten win since 1998. The critical juncture of the weekend came when the Cats rallied from behind to tie the Spartans (6-3, 0-1) with a few minutes remaining in regulation and went on to score in sudden-death overtime.

It marked the second time this year that NU beat Michigan State, the first being an exhibition.

Over the weekend, Smith — NU’s leading scorer — scored the pivotal second and third goals against Michigan State. She then scored twice more in the first half against Providence. Smith, who totaled nine points last year, had 10 points for the weekend as it seemed like every ball she whacked around the penalty circle found the back of the net.

“We were expecting her not to play,” senior midfielder Wendy Roberts said. “For her to pull through the pain and score those goals was huge.”

Fifth-year senior Jessica Yates sprawled across the turf and made several clutch kick saves — including stopping a first-half penalty stroke — to give the Cats a reasonable chance to win.

“(The Spartans) had several opportunities to win this game,” Didio said. “(Yates) was the one who put us in position to win the game.”

Finally, with the score tied at one in the second half, an apparent NU goal by Smith was taken away and a few minutes later the referees awarded Michigan State another penalty stroke, allowing the Spartans to take the lead.

But, with NU out of timeouts, Didio said it was fortunate that Michigan State called a timeout with four minutes to play, giving the coach an opportunity to relax her team. The recharged Cats stormed downfield and created a penalty corner which was crisply converted by Smith.

The match entered sudden-death overtime, where teams play 7 on 7 instead of 11 on 11. With more space to work with, the skillful Spartans crashed the net early and often. But the score remained tied due to stingy goalkeeping and effective defense. Then Didio inserted Smith into the game after the player assured the coach that she was healthy enough to play.

Smith described the overtime as “nerve-wracking” as she watched from the bench and her team barely survived each Spartans onslaught. But soon after her entrance Smith found open space in the offensive zone and chipped a ball past the goalie for the game-winner.

“We have something to be really proud of,” Yates said. “We played, persisted and didn’t let a bad call beat us.”

Added Smith: “Being our first Big Ten game and having home-field advantage, it was whoever wanted it more. This was far from perfect and there is plenty of room for improvement.”

The Cats returned to play Sunday and overwhelmed the Friars (2-8) from the outset. Five minutes into the game, sophomore forward Michelle Cifelli scored and then Smith added two goals before halftime to give the Cats a comfortable lead. Roberts scored the final goal of the match as NU continued its renewed offensive explosion.

“In the Big Ten season, we start over with a clean slate,” Roberts said. “With one win already and our foot in the door, we are off to a great start.”