Field Hockey: Writers ruminate on Northwestern’s season, NCAA Tournament chances


Daily file photo by Brian Meng

Puck Pentenga runs after the ball. The junior midfielder has led the Wildcats to a successful season with six regular season games to go.

Cole Paxton and Joseph Wilkinson

Field Hockey

No. 10 Northwestern has won six of seven games and looks like one of the best teams in the country. As the Wildcats enter the season’s final stretch, The Daily’s field hockey beat writers discuss the team’s outlook.

Last season, the Cats entered October undefeated in the Big Ten. But a four-game losing streak derailed their season, and NU missed the NCAA tournament. Is this year’s team for real, or will it be the same story again?

Joseph Wilkinson: It would be extremely out of character for this team to drop any of its next four games. If anything, the Cats could be looking at a six-game winning streak going into their final two contests of the regular season. Indiana, Ball State, Iowa and Massachusetts are all either unranked or ranked lower than Rutgers, which NU just handled despite a mediocre performance. As long as the Cats don’t drop any of these contests, they should cruise into the NCAA Tournament, even if they lose to Michigan in late October.

Cole Paxton: I think the reality lies somewhere in the middle. NU is better right now than it was a year ago, but October could still bring stumbles. Joe is right that the schedule eases for a while, but Indiana and Iowa are tricky opponents the Cats have lost to in the past. Still, it would take a complete collapse for this team to miss the postseason. NU has quality nonconference wins over Stanford and Louisville — two teams it lost to last year — and the Big Ten is deeper with teams like Rutgers on the rise. There will be an NCAA Tournament return for the Cats.

NU lost Dominique Masters, Isabel Flens and Lindsay von der Luft to graduation after last season, but the team hasn’t faltered. Who has stepped up in their absence?

Paxton: Literally everyone else. Top returners like junior forward Pascale Massey and senior defender Sophia Miller have gotten better. Former role players like junior midfielder Puck Pentenga and sophomore defender Kirsten Mansfield have not only assumed key roles in the attack, they’ve thrived in them. One-time backups like sophomore goaltender Annie Kalfas have eased themselves into the starting lineup. This team is still bereft of true superstars, but coach Tracey Fuchs has developed her roster such that the weak spots from the past two seasons have disappeared. That’s a big deal when your best players inevitably have a bad day.

Wilkinson: Pentenga is the truth. She leads the team in assists, shots and shots on goal. The attack in the midfield runs through her, and she’s the one taking shots at the top of the circle on corners. Beyond her, Massey is a dominant and ruthless attacking force down the right side: 25 of her 35 shots are on goal, good for second on the team in both categories. The Cats aren’t a lockdown defensive team, taking only 25 more shots than they’ve allowed, but Kalfas has the 15th best save percentage in the country — and that’s even after accounting for NU’s 7-0 loss to No. 1 Connecticut earlier this season.

Despite missing the NCAA tournament a year ago, NU is ranked in the top 10. What’s the ceiling for this team?

Wilkinson: Probably the final four. As mentioned, the Cats fell hard to the Huskies, who haven’t lost and have allowed only six goals all season. But they lost a relatively tight match to No. 2 Duke 1-0 and played No. 5 Penn State evenly before the Nittany Lions stole a game winning goal with less than two minutes remaining. The only team that I don’t think NU can beat is UConn, so its ceiling is as far as it can go before running into the Huskies.

Paxton: If last season’s NCAA Tournament is any guide, the Cats could theoretically win the whole thing. NU is a better team than last year’s Delaware, which stunned its way to the title, and UConn is the only team the Cats clearly can’t beat. The one-goal losses to Duke and Penn State were truthfully toss-ups, and all it takes is an upset or two in the tournament for the Cats’ bracket to blow open. A second-round tourney loss is probably more likely, however, given NU’s lack of recent postseason experience and a big muddle of teams just outside the top tier.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @ckpaxton

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @joe_f_wilkinson