The Daily Northwestern

Field Hockey: Potential season-defining weekend forthcoming for the Cats

Puck Pentenga fights for the ball. The senior midfielder is the team leader in points.

Puck Pentenga fights for the ball. The senior midfielder is the team leader in points.

Daily file photo by Alison Albelda

Daily file photo by Alison Albelda

Puck Pentenga fights for the ball. The senior midfielder is the team leader in points.

Peter Warren, Sports Editor

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Field Hockey

Three weeks ago, Northwestern had lost two of three and was set to face two ranked teams with its playoff hopes teetering on the edge. But the Wildcats picked up two resume-boosting wins over then-No. 13 Iowa and then-No. 25 California, vaulting themselves into the top 10.

The Cats head into Homecoming Weekend in a similar situation. Since its win over the Golden Bears, No. 15 NU (8-6, 3-2 Big Ten) has lost two of its last three and has dropped from five spots in the national rankings. And now the Cats have to face No. 14 Rutgers on Friday and No. 6 Penn State on Sunday, again with their tournament hopes on the brink.

“It’s always in the back of our minds,” senior midfielder Eva van Agt said. “As of now, we wouldn’t qualify directly for NCAAs without winning the Big Ten Tournament.”

In the 18-team NCAA field hockey tournament, 10 teams automatically qualify via conference tournament victories and eight others receive at-large bids. Since the tournament expanded to 18 teams in 2013, the Big Ten has only placed more than three teams in tournament once, in 2017. NU is currently the sixth-highest ranked team in the conference.

The fifth-highest ranked team is the Scarlet Knights (9-4, 1-4), who have yet to pick up a win against one of the six ranked teams in the conference or when visiting another Big Ten opponent. The second-highest are the streaking Nittany Lions (9-3, 4-1), winners of four straight. During the four game winning streak, Penn State has scored eight goals in a game twice and 22 goals overall.

Offensively, most of the the Cats’ success has come off penalty corners — coach Tracey Fuchs said NU strives to score 25 percent of the time a penalty corner is earned. However, senior midfielder Puck Pentenga — the main shooter on penalty corners — said the team is looking to diversify its offense.

“We really want to score more field goals because we have been depending on our corners a little bit,” Pentenga said. “If we could score field goals this weekend, that would be great.”

While Pentenga — who is tied for second in the conference in points with Rutgers’ Daphne Groothuis — leads the team in goals, none of her tallies have been the difference in the game.

In practice, Fuchs has confined her players to holding onto the ball for a maximum of three seconds. She said when NU is trailing, players hold onto the ball for too long.

“I’m not going to blow the whistle if they don’t (pass the ball after three seconds during the game),” Fuchs said. “Once we get over the (23-meter line), then I want them to take them on and risk and go forward and win their one-on-one battles.”

With big challenges coming their way, both van Agt and Fuchs said the team has been working on the fundamentals this week in practice and have stayed focused on themselves and not their opponents.

“We need to make sure we do the simple right — the basic skills,” van Agt said. “It’s important to obviously watch film of Rutgers and Penn State but ultimately it comes down to how we are playing.”

Twitter: @thepeterwarren