Field Hockey: Loss to Louisville sets Wildcats back in push for NCAA Tournament


(Daily file photo by Kate Savidio) Puck Pentenga dribbles the ball. The senior midfielder took two shots against Louisville.

Joseph Wilkinson, Digital Projects Editor

Field Hockey

Halfway through the season, Northwestern sits at a crossroads. The No. 14 Wildcats (5-4, 1-0 Big Ten) have two impressive wins, over current No. 9 Boston College and No. 22 Stanford, but have also suffered losses to No. 2 Connecticut, No. 4 Duke, No. 21 Boston University and most recently on the road at No. 7 Louisville.

It may seem odd for the No. 14 team in the country to be worried about an NCAA Tournament bid, but qualifying in field hockey is significantly different than most collegiate sports. With only 18 spots available in the final tournament, and 10 of those spots taken by teams receiving automatic bids for winning their conferences, only eight at-large spots remain.

Last year, NU was one of those teams, but just two years ago the Cats entered the Big Ten Tournament semifinals ranked No. 12, lost to No. 3 Maryland and missed the tournament.

The thin margin of error makes Sunday’s 1-0 loss to Louisville even more important. Last year, NU beat the Cardinals in Evanston, and after the game coach Tracey Fuchs mentioned the importance of the win for the team’s NCAA tournament case.

This year, the Cats are missing that win, making their road back much more difficult. That road continues Friday and Sunday, as NU hosts No. 13 Iowa and No. 25 California.

The Hawkeyes (7-1, 1-0) have only lost one game this season, in overtime at No. 1 North Carolina, and feature a high-powered offense led by forward Maddy Murphy, who has scored seven goals in only eight games.

The Cats rank below average in goals against per game, so the defense led by junior defender Kirsten Mansfield and junior goalkeeper Annie Kalfas will need to step up to contain Murphy and the Hawkeyes’ attack.

Iowa also ranks second in the country in goals against average, having allowed only four goals through eight games. The one knock on the Hawkeyes: they haven’t played a very tough schedule. Only one of Iowa’s seven wins has come against ranked competition.

For No. 25 Cal, it’s a different story. The Golden Bears (3-3) are not highly ranked in either goals per game or goals against average, and have struggled against top-class teams, losing 6-0 to the No. 1 UNC and 5-0 to No. 3 Maryland.

Cal’s offense runs through sophomore forward Megan Rodgers, who has scored six goals in the Golden Bears’ six games. Against high-caliber competition, however, Cal’s attack has stalled. In the team’s three games against ranked teams, the Golden Bears have scored just one goal, which came in an overtime loss to Louisville.

Including this weekend, seven of NU’s final nine games come against ranked opponents, including at No. 3 Maryland and No. 8 Michigan and home against No. 6 Penn State. The Cats will have ample opportunities to pick up marquee wins and secure a second-consecutive NCAA Tournament bid, but Sunday’s loss to Louisville seriously lowered their margin for error.

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