Field Hockey: Wildcats to face Louisville in return to NCAA Tournament


Daily file photo by Brian Meng

Puck Pentenga runs upfield. The junior midfielder and the Wildcats will face Louisville in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday.

Joseph Wilkinson, Assistant Sports Editor

Field Hockey

Things are different for Northwestern in 2017. Last year, a loss to Louisville kept the Wildcats out of the NCAA Tournament, forcing them to watch from home for the second straight season while the Cardinals snagged a tournament bid.

This year, No. 10 NU beat No. 8 Louisville 2-0 in September. Now, the two teams are set to square off again in the first round of the tournament.

“It’s really exciting,” senior defender Sophia Miller said. “This means a lot to (coach) Tracey (Fuchs) and the whole team because the last two years we haven’t gotten that chance, and I think it’s a really big step for us this season. Making the tournament really shows all the hard work we put in during the season.”

Miller is the only member of the team with NCAA Tournament experience, as she started in the Cats’ final game of the 2014 season — a 1-0 loss to Duke in the first round of the tournament.

Though Miller was a solid contributor to that team, starting all 23 matches, she has since become a crucial part of NU’s success this season. The senior earned a unanimous First Team All-Big Ten selection for her defensive prowess while also tallying nine assists and scoring one goal on the season.

If the Cats are to have more success in Miller’s second tournament appearance, they’ll need the postseason newcomers to step up, none more than junior midfielder Puck Pentenga, who has spearheaded the NU attack with a Big Ten-leading 17 assists and 105 shots. Pentenga assisted on both goals in the first matchup against Louisville.

“It’s my first time, and it’s a lot of people’s first time, so I think we’re all really excited,” Pentenga said. “We’re really proud and really happy that we’re going.”

The Cats will need to channel some of that excitement on the field if they hope to knock off the Cardinals for the second time this season. Louisville struggled early in the season, but is 10-3 since its loss to NU in September.

That stretch includes upsets of No. 2 Duke and No. 4 North Carolina. For comparison, the highest-ranked team the Cats have beaten is the Cardinals.

NU, on the other hand, has struggled to pick up victories against top-five teams, dropping games to No. 1 UConn, Duke and falling to No. 3 Michigan twice. The team failed to score in any of those matches.

Outside the top five, however, the Cats have thrived, racking up a 14-2 record with wins over No. 9 Maryland and No. 16 Stanford, both tournament teams.

In all those games, NU has counted on penalty corners to generate offense. The Cats rank fourth in the country in corners per game. In the first showdown against Louisville, sophomore defender Kirsten Mansfield scored both NU goals on corner plays.

“People are a little confused how I get some goals,” said Mansfield, who is third on the team with eight scores. “But it’s usually just because I’m on the corner trying to get tips and help everyone out.”

If the Cats take down the Cardinals for a second time, they will likely square off against the Wolverines in the second round.

NU has struggled to generate those crucial corner opportunities in its previous two matches against Michigan. In their most recent meeting, the Cats allowed a goal in the first minute of play, forcing them to play from behind for almost the entire match.

Despite a strong second half, Pentenga knows the team will need to bring that mentality from the get-go if it gets another shot at Michigan this weekend.

“Our slow start is what got us,” Pentenga said. “We came back in the second half strong. The energy from the bench was great, which has been great all season. That just really helped us to keep going and keep fighting.”

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