Field Hockey: As season ends, Wildcats focused on becoming Big Ten champions

Mike Marut, Senior Staffer

No. 9 Northwestern (12-5, 6-1 Big Ten) hopes to secure back-to-back Big Ten titles this weekend, taking on No. 4 Penn State (13-4, 4-3 Big Ten) and Kent State (8-8, 5-0 Mid-American).

The Wildcats have been here before. The past two years, NU has had to fight for a share of the Big Ten regular season crown. In 2012, Iowa wiped away coach Tracey Fuchs dreams of claiming her first title as the Cats’ head coach, and NU could not get past the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. 2013 ushered in Fuchs’ first Big Ten title as coach, but again the Cats fell in the first round of the NCAA tournament. 2014 brings a challenge of its own: beating the Nittany Lions to secure at least a piece of the title.

“The more you’re in that position, the more comfortable you are at it,” Fuchs said. “This team, they’re really resilient. We have a lot of depth throughout all three lines, which we haven’t had in the past so if one or two players had an off game, we were in a bit of trouble the past few years. This year, we have six, seven, eight players who have been really consistent and are really among the top in the Big Ten.”

If NU takes the win Friday over Penn State, then the Cats automatically have a stake in the Big Ten title and claim the top seed in the Big Ten Tournament. If NU loses, then they must rely on Maryland to lose on Saturday against Iowa to become Big Ten co-champions. If that happens, there would be a three-way tie for the title among the Cats, Terrapins and Wolverines — if Michigan wins — and NU would have the third seed in the Big Ten Tournament.

Since Fuchs’s arrival, the Cats and Nittany Lions have traded blows: The cumulative record between the two teams is 3-2 in favor of Penn State, not including post-season play. Last season, NU led in shots and penalty corners, but two early goals from the Nittany Lions denied a Cats victory. After traditionally heated competition, NU expects nothing less this year.

“We are expecting a battle,” senior goalkeeper Maddy Carpenter said. “We’re definitely ready for a close game. They’re strong in the middle so we’re hoping to go around them, use the outsides. Hopefully we can execute on corners, get some goals in there, and keep them to a minimum in our circle. It should be a game in our favor if we can do those things.”

Throughout Fuchs’ tenure, two of the five regular season contests against Penn State have reached overtime and three of the five have been decided by one goal. This season, NU has won three of its four extra-time events.

The Cats will wrap up the season with senior day on Sunday against Kent State. The Golden Flashes are led by senior Hannah Faulkner, who has netted 17 goals on the season, 5 of them game-winners. NU had no trouble against Kent State last season, outscoring the team 3-1. This year may be a bit more difficult as Kent State is perfect in the Mid-American Conference.

“(The end of the season) is a lot to take in,” Carpenter said. “I’m really excited, but I cannot believe it’s already that time of year. I can’t believe it’s going to be my last season. It’s going to be a lot of emotions.”

Fuchs is thankful that Friday’s Penn State game works as “a good distraction” from the final regular season game, saying the seniors, “are not thinking that far ahead, we’re just focused on Penn State, which is always good for the coach.”

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