For Northwestern, all it took was the return of three of its best players.
The Wildcats(10-6-3, 2-4-1 Big Ten) welcomed back senior midfielder Chris Ritter, junior goalkeeper Tyler Miller and junior defender Nikko Boxall on Wednesday night, and the results were immediate in a 2-1 victory over Wisconsin (13-4-2, 4-3-0) in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament.
“Those three players coming back gave us great confidence,” coach Tim Lenahan said. “To get that kind of result is big for us.”
Both Ritter and Miller have been battling ailments throughout the second half of NU’s season. Ritter, a team co-captain, sprained his ankle early in the Oct. 30 match against Loyola. Miller has been sidelined for the past five games with an illness, including a 1-0 loss against Wisconsin on Nov. 3.
“After you miss a lot of time you’re always antsy to come back,” Miller said. “And we knew this was going to be a tough game.”
The Cats’ star goalie was tested early. Less than four minutes into the game, Miller made a save on a shot by Badgers midfielder Nick Janus, who leads Wisconsin with 9 goals this year. The netminder deflected two other volleys in the first half and finished the game with a total of five saves.
Ritter, on the other hand, struggled to regain his form, sailing a shot over the crossbar in the fifth minute. The anchor of the offense, who has 5 goals and four assists this fall, had a quiet game and recorded no other stats save for a yellow card late in the first period.
The rest of NU’s offense was there to pick up the slack. Junior defender Grant Wilson broke the deadlock in the 31st minute, scoring a goal off a corner kick set-piece from Cole Missimo. The sophomore midfielder had another assist before the close of the half, this time on a give-and-go to junior midfielder Eric Weberman, to help put the Cats up 2-0.
Determined to keep their Big Ten title hopes alive, the Badgers opened the second half with a furious attack. They found the back of the net in the 59th minute on their own corner kick set-piece, when midfielder Tomislav Zadro connected with defender Carl Schneider to break the NU shutout.
“It was a nice corner from Wisconsin,” Miller said. “They had a near post runner, so I couldn’t come out (to play the ball), I had to stay.”
Wisconsin kept the pressure on, generating shots throughout the latter half of the second period, but the Cats were able to thwart every offensive opportunity that the Badgers generated. NU held on to win 2-1, its first conference victory since September.
“The last half of the season we haven’t been playing that well,” Missimo said. “We haven’t been getting the results we’ve deserved.”
With the win, the Cats are now back in contention for a spot in the NCAA Tournament later this month. For now, however, the focus remains on capturing a third straight Big Ten Championship.
“This team earned it,” Lenahan said. “We’ve been through a lot together with all of these injuries. … We’re going to enjoy tonight and worry about about our next opponent on Friday.”