Field Hockey: Momentum carries into round one

Danny Daly

With the Big Ten tournament about to get underway, everything seems to be coming together for Northwestern at just the right time.

The Wildcats broke a 17-game conference losing streak by beating Indiana, 3-1. The week before, NU played its closest game this season against a top-20 team, losing 4-3 to No. 12 Louisville in overtime.

The Cats (7-12, 1-5 Big Ten) are stepping up in every phase of the game.

The attack penalty corner unit has converted on three of its last seven attempts – as many goals as it had on its first 119 corners. The offense scored three times in consecutive games for the first time in more than a month.

The defense has also been in top form. Senior goalie Emily Kyle turned in one of her best performances against the Hoosiers. The defensive corner team has allowed only two goals on the last 62 corners against it, spanning four games.

NU opens Thursday against No. 10 Michigan State (15-4, 4-2), seeded second in the tournament. Last year the Spartans defeated the Cats handily in the first round, 4-1.

At that point, NU was entering the tournament having lost 12 of its previous 13 games.

Now the Cats are playing their best hockey of the season. They played the Spartans much harder this season, losing a 3-1 decision that was closer than the score indicated.

“We’re coming in very confidently, especially after that Indiana win,” sophomore defender Sarah Marcincin said. “Last time we were up against Michigan State, we all played really well.”

In that game, the Cats would have gone into halftime with the score tied at one, were it not for a tough break in the last two minutes that gave the Spartans their second goal.

The players were encouraged by taking the Spartans down to the wire despite the bad luck, giving up just one goal the rest of the way.

“We learned that we can keep up with these good teams and that we can win this if we all come together and work hard,” Marcincin said.

Coach Kelly McCollum felt the same way, noting the Cats matched up well in the last meeting between the two teams. She also said NU is a better team now than it was in last month’s game, which should make the second encounter even tighter.

“We may mix things up a little bit,” McCollum said. “I would expect that they have some strategies to battle some of the things that we threw at them last time. But it’s going to be the same kind of battle – who can build the ball out of the backfield and who can score on corners.”

A first-round win against a team like Michigan State would be vast progress for the program. The team has not won in the tournament since 1996 – a 1-0 win against the Spartans.

Still, a lot has to go right for NU to pull off the upset.

Jumping out to an early lead has been a problem for NU, and McCollum has stressed that to her players. The Cats have not scored first in a conference game dating back through last season.

“Our team is going to be focused on how we can control the tempo of the game,” McCollum said. “Our plan will be to try to get one in early when we get opportunities, because we’ve had opportunities and knocked on doors really early in games, and now it’s time to get it to roll for us first. With our corner units executing the way they are, I think that’s a very real possibility.”

The Cats have rarely been playing as well going into the tournament as they are now. In the last 12 years, this is only the third time they have won their last Big Ten game of the season.

Drawing on the momentum from the past two games, NU is going into the second battle against Michigan State hungry for revenge and with the confidence that this year will be different.

“It’s all about playing together as a team,” McCollum said. “I think we have good momentum going in, good energy and good team dynamic. We’re not just playing out the season, we’re going to play it to win it.”

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