Who to watch this year in sports

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Daily file photo by Alison Albelda

Bente Baekers attempts to steal the ball. Baekers led the Big Ten in shots, goals and points last season.

Benjamin Rosenberg, Reporter

Although the 2019-20 athletic season was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic and the status of college sports for 2020-21 is uncertain, many of Northwestern’s teams created memorable moments and produced star players who will be back for more, if their teams play.

Women’s basketball made an inspiring run to the Big Ten championship and created a palpable buzz on campus. Field hockey had a great bounce-back year, making it to the NCAA Tournament. Both swimming programs took huge steps forward. Lacrosse and softball had big expectations that were put on hold as the virus ended their seasons prematurely.

With that in mind, here are a few Wildcat athletes to watch in 2020-21.

Bente Baekers, Redshirt sophomore, Field Hockey, Forward:

Bente Baekers had to sit out her true freshman season in 2018 with an injury. When the Netherlands native finally took the field last year, she showed it was worth the wait, helping lead NU back to the NCAA Tournament after a one-year absence. Baekers played in every game, leading the conference in shots, goals and points en route to winning Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Her 28 goals were tied for the second-best single-season total in program history, and the most by a first-year player.

The Cats won only one game in 2019 in which Baekers did not score. She had four hat tricks, including one in a win at No. 12 Ohio State and another in the Big Ten Tournament against Rutgers. She scored 13 goals during an eight-game winning streak in September that catapulted NU to No. 5 in the national rankings. She also scored a fourth-quarter equalizer on a penalty stroke in NU’s eventual 2-1 loss to Boston College in the NCAA Tournament. Baekers will team with Lakin Barry and Maren Seidel on the Cats’ front line in an attempt to lead NU to its first Big Ten title since 2014.

Calypso Sheridan, Senior, Swimming:

Northwestern women’s swimming posted its highest finish at the Big Ten Championships since 2002 last year, taking fourth place. Calypso Sheridan, who has been setting records since her freshman year, was a big reason why. Sheridan broke school records in the 200-yard breaststroke and the 200-yard individual medley at the 2018 Big Ten Championships and set five pool records at the TYR Invitational in November 2017. But the Brisbane, Australia, native was just getting started. Sheridan was an NCAA All-American as a sophomore with a fourth-place finish in the 400 IM at the NCAA Championships, setting a Big Ten record in the process. She broke five school records at the Big Ten Championships in 2019, in the 200 breast, 400 IM, 200 IM and two relay events. She also recorded the Wildcats’ best time of the year in the 100- and 200-yard backstroke events.

Then as a junior, Sheridan figured she might as well find some new strokes with which to set records. She broke the school record in the 200-yard butterfly at the TYR Invitational, then won Big Ten titles in her two best events: the 400 IM and 200 breast. If this coming season takes place as scheduled, swimming fans will find out if Sheridan has any more records to break as a senior.

Ryan Deakin, Redshirt senior, Wrestling, 157 Pounds:

With two-time Big Ten champion Sebastian Rivera transferring to Rutgers, Ryan Deakin becomes the unquestioned star of this team. The Colorado native was a perfect 21-0 last season, winning five matches by pin and eight more by major decision. He won the Big Ten title at 157 pounds, and was set to compete in the NCAA Championships before they were canceled due to the pandemic. Deakin finished the year ranked No. 2 in the country in his weight class and had five wins against top-10 opponents, including a victory against No. 1 Hayden Hidlay of North Carolina State at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational.

As a team, the Cats are a long way from contending for a championship in the best wrestling conference in the country. But if any NU athlete is to win an individual national championship, Deakin seems the likeliest possibility.

Veronica Burton, Junior, Women’s Basketball, Guard:

We could have gone with a number of players on this team, and senior guard Lindsey Pulliam is the biggest name and the Wildcats’ best offensive player. But Veronica Burton’s on-court impact goes well beyond the box score. Not that her stats are bad — she led the conference with 100 steals last year, was second in assist-to-turnover ratio and fourth in assists and free throw percentage on her way to being named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Burton’s defense obviously stands out — she averaged more than three steals per game, including six in a signature win over Maryland and five in the conference title clincher against Illinois. But as the season progressed, the Massachusetts native became one of NU’s best scoring options. She scored 23 points in the aforementioned victory against Maryland on New Year’s Eve and matched that mark twice more in Big Ten play.

Burton is also crucial in executing coach Joe McKeown’s patented “blizzard” defense, a kind of matchup zone that, when effective, leads the offense to force up hurried shots. Next year, she will team with Pulliam, senior Jordan Hamilton and junior Sydney Wood to form the deepest backcourt in the Big Ten, and one of the best in the country.

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Twitter: @bxrosenberg

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