Field Hockey: Wildcats take on Rutgers in ranked Big Ten showdown


(Daily file photo by Katie Pach)

Kirsten Mansfield prepares to strike the ball. The sophomore defender was named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week for her three goals in three games.

Joseph Wilkinson, Assistant Sports Editor

Field Hockey

After opening the season against a slew of ranked teams, Northwestern will be tested again Friday when it hosts No. 19 Rutgers.

No. 10 NU (7-4, 2-1 Big Ten) has played 11 games this season, and seven have come against top-15 teams. The Cats are 3-4 in those contests, but 4-0 against other opponents.

“This tough schedule was pre-planned,” coach Tracey Fuchs said. “Strength of schedule and RPI are so important to making the NCAA tournament with only eight at-large spots in our sport, so we upped our schedule. As of now, it’s really playing off.”

Entering the weekend, NU sits at No. 8 in the NCAA’s RPI rankings, which, according to Fuchs, would be good enough to secure the tournament bid that eluded the Cats last season.

But the NCAA doesn’t hand out bids based on September’s RPI rankings, and the No. 8 ranking is subject to fluctuation between now and early November. Every match until the end of the season is crucial, and just because the Scarlet Knights sit outside the top 15 doesn’t mean NU is taking them lightly.

“We play our best when we’re up against good opponents,” Fuchs said. “They hit the ball hard, and they’ve got good skill. We just need to come out and play our game.”

According to Fuchs and the players, Rutgers (7-3, 2-0) has improved significantly since last season, when it lost 5-3 to the Cats in New Jersey.

Rutgers’ 2017 resume speaks for itself. The Scarlet Knights sit tied atop the Big Ten standings after defeating Indiana and Iowa in their first two conference games.

“They’re really good this year,” junior forward Pascale Massey said. “This is a really important game for us. We just know we have to go out there and win and play the hockey that we’re starting to play and we’ll do just fine.”

Massey has scored a team-high five goals this season, a mark she shares with sophomore defender Kirsten Mansfield. Even though she spent most of her time on the defensive end, Mansfield was named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week on Monday after scoring three goals in three games.

While Massey has played a more central role in the offense this year, taking the second-most shots of anyone on the team, Mansfield scored her five goals on just six attempts. Despite her incredible efficiency, Mansfield downplayed her success.

“It’s because when I shoot, I’m really just tipping the ball on the corners,” Mansfield said. “It’s not really what you would think of as a shot. It’s usually just cause I’m on the corner trying to help out. We’re all trying to do what we can.”

Thanks to Massey, Mansfield and star junior midfielder Puck Pentenga, the Cats are 4-0 at home this year — averaging four goals per game — with a convincing win over now No. 12 Louisville.

This will only be NU’s second home conference game this season, but turning Lakeside Field into a fortress could be key to the Cats’ success later in conference play.

“The Big Ten in general is just really strong this year, so every team is a different challenge,” Mansfield said. “We’re just going to focus on our game plan and prepare accordingly for Rutgers.”

Twitter: @joe_f_wilkinson