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Field Hockey: Entering Big Ten Tournament with postseason status unclear, Northwestern focuses on Iowa

Sophia+Miller+looks+upfield.+The+junior+back+and+the+Wildcats+are+looking+to+make+a+run+in+the+Big+Ten+Tournament%2C+beginning+with+a+first-round+matchup+with+No.+15+Iowa.
Sophia Miller looks upfield. The junior back and the Wildcats are looking to make a run in the Big Ten Tournament, beginning with a first-round matchup with No. 15 Iowa.

Sophia Miller looks upfield. The junior back and the Wildcats are looking to make a run in the Big Ten Tournament, beginning with a first-round matchup with No. 15 Iowa.

Daily file photo by Jonathan Dai

Daily file photo by Jonathan Dai

Sophia Miller looks upfield. The junior back and the Wildcats are looking to make a run in the Big Ten Tournament, beginning with a first-round matchup with No. 15 Iowa.

Cole Paxton, Assistant Sports Editor

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Tracey Fuchs has pored over the numbers and deciphered Northwestern’s potential NCAA Tournament scenarios, but that isn’t her focus.

“I have it all worked out,” she said. “But I don’t talk about it in front of the kids.”

Instead of openly discussing paths to the NCAAs, the coach and the No. 12 Wildcats (12-7, 5-3 Big Ten) are focusing on their Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal game Thursday against No. 15 Iowa (12-6, 4-4) in College Park, Maryland.

If NU wins Thursday, it would return to action Friday for a semifinal game and potentially play for the conference title Sunday. Despite the possible onslaught of games and opponents, the Cats say they are looking only at the opener.

“All we’re worried about is Iowa and doing what we need to do to get the better result,” Fuchs said. “Everybody’s relaxed and loose. Hopefully we’ll come out swinging.”

To defeat the Hawkeyes, NU will need to reverse its recent fortunes. Iowa handed the Cats a 2-1 overtime defeat in Evanston on Oct. 14, and NU has lost its last four games against ranked teams.

The Cats had a handful of excellent scoring opportunities in that first meeting, including an Isabel Flens breakaway shortly before halftime and two penalty corners in the last 10 minutes of regulation.

Though NU lost that game, the experience could come in handy Thursday.

“We know what we can get better at. We’ve been able to watch (the video) and see where it went wrong,” said Flens, a senior forward. “It’s rough to see that back but … we had a lot of good opportunities and good play for a lot of minutes.”

Fuchs hinted Thursday’s game is likely a must-win for the Cats’ NCAA hopes. NU is No. 16 in the most recent RPI ratings, and several teams with lower rankings will claim automatic berths in the 18-team tournament.

A win Thursday would probably give NU a rematch with top-seeded Maryland, which the Cats upset 3-2 in late September. Another win against the No. 3 Terrapins would give NU three top-10 wins on the season and probably secure its NCAAs berth.

“Of course it’s a big week, but we’ve been doing really well all season,” Flens said. “We just have to take it game by game … and we’ll see how it goes.”

A few weeks ago, the Cats’ postseason fate seemed secure. At No. 6 in the country and on an eight-game winning streak, NU once sat atop the Big Ten with wins over then-No. 4 Penn State and the then-No. 6 Terrapins.

Four consecutive losses dented the Cats’ sterling season, however, and put their tournament hopes in jeopardy. NU is now in a position similar to the end of the 2014 season, when the Cats won the Big Tens and earned the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAAs.

That year, NU dropped three straight games against ranked foes late in the season but then defeated three top-15 opponents to claim the conference crown. Incidentally, the Cats opened that tournament against Iowa and also defeated top-seeded Maryland.

As her career comes to a close, senior midfielder Dominique Masters said that title run is at the forefront of her mind.

“I’d love to hold another Big Ten trophy,” Masters said. “I’ve enjoyed my senior season so much. I don’t want it to end, but it’s got to end, and … I’d rather end it with a trophy in my hand.”

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Twitter: @ckpaxton

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