Forman: No matter the loss, Fuchs key to the future

Matt Forman

It doesn’t take a field hockey expert to recognize what’s happening here. Coach Tracey Fuchs has Northwestern headed in the right direction. I won’t go so far as to say the Wildcats will win a National Championship under Fuchs, but it’s hard to ignore the early results.

Sure, the 1-0 overtime loss to Iowa on Friday was disappointing, though Iowa won the Big Ten Tournament last year. The Cats came up short this time, but the one-goal deficit was the closest the teams had played since 2005. Over the last three seasons, this senior class had been outscored by a combined 15-4 margin by the Hawkeyes.

It wasn’t just Iowa who was beating NU repeatedly. It was every school in the Big Ten. The Cats had compiled a 1-27 record over the last five years against their conference foes. It took Fuchs just three games to record her first Big Ten win, a 3-2 victory over Penn State in early October.

Sure, Fuchs has implemented a new, aggressive style of play. Offensively, the team takes more chances, as the forwards always have a green light to take advantage of scoring opportunities. Defensively, the Cats no longer play man-to-man. Instead, they use a matchup zone to pressure the ball. But it’s not the tactical changes that have made the biggest difference. It’s the confidence of suiting up for one of the best players in the history of the sport.

“We’re trying to take Northwestern field hockey out of the slump that it’s been in,” senior forward Elizabeth Dobbs said. “It’s a fresh start for us, and we’re starting to build Tracey Fuchs’ legacy. She’s the right person for the job. If she can do this much in one year, what can she do with more? The sky is the limit.”

See, Fuchs knows how to get things done. She was the captain of the U.S. National team for 14 years. She coached the U.S. Junior National team for the last five years. She was instrumental in Michigan’s turnaround from Big Ten doormat to perennial power. It’s almost like the football team playing for Pat Fitzgerald, only if Fitzgerald led the NFL in tackles for 10 years and then decided to come back to Evanston.

The difference between Fuchs and Fitzgerald doesn’t stop there, and that’s not to say Fitzgerald isn’t the right man for the job. Fitzgerald’s role as Captain Cat came before he even expected it. When Randy Walker’s death shocked the football program in 2006,

Fitzgerald filled Walker’s shoes several seasons before he was supposed to. Fuchs’ job, on the other hand, was a long time coming. She was playing a waiting game at Michigan for the previous coach to retire, but the Wolverines opted to go in a different direction.

That’s when NU Director of Athletics Jim Phillips stepped in, and it couldn’t have been better timing. Fuchs had numerous coaching offers when she was at Michigan, but never openly considered them. Phillips came knocking at just the right time, even before Michigan eventually re-hired Marcia Pankratz. Fuchs was ready for a position like this for at least five years.

After hiring Fuchs, everyone had high expectations for the field hockey program, but no one expected the team to be sitting at 12-6 with one game left in the regular season or to be ranked in the national top 20.

The outlook is bright. There’s no better indication than the one posted on a sign at Lakeside Field. It shows NU won Big Ten titles and went to the NCAA Final Four in 1993 and 1994, among other years. But it’s not the past that matters, it’s the future. And those very same signs each have an ellipses, showing one thing: The Cats will be back. Just ask senior midfielder and defender Stacy Uchida.

“If not this year or next year, definitely in the next few years, we’ll be winning Big Ten Championships and being ranked in the top 20 every year,” she said. “I really believe so.”