Field Hockey: Northwestern shuts out Liberty 2-0 for program’s first championship


John Riker/Daily Senior Staffer

Field hockey coach Tracey Fuchs embraces junior forward Bente Baekers during the award ceremony. The Wildcats defeated the Liberty Flames 2-0 Sunday to win the program’s first NCAA championship.

Skye Swann, Assistant Sports Editor

Field Hockey

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — With 10 seconds left on the game clock, Northwestern players huddled together on the sidelines of Michigan’s Ocker Field, waiting for the horn to sound off and call the match.

In a flash, players rushed to the field, dogpiling sophomore goalkeeper Annabel Skubisz as the announcer crowned the Wildcats the 2021 NCAA Division I Field Hockey National Champions.

“I can’t even describe it,” said sophomore midfielder Maddie Zimmer, who was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. “It’s so exciting. I can’t believe we are here. We knew we could do it. We finished. We did the details. We came out on top.”

NU (18-5, 5-3 Big Ten) defeated Liberty (20-3, 7-0 Big East) 2-0 Sunday in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to win its first title in program history. In a tightly contested match, Zimmer and junior defender Alia Marshall recorded the Cats’ two goals in the third quarter, bringing home the title for the squad.

This is coach Tracey Fuchs’ first title in her 13 seasons leading the program. Fuchs, who has won one national title as a player and two as a coach, gave the credit to her team. Another aspect that made the game special — Flames coach Nikki Parsley-Blocker played for the Cats in 2013.

“She really put our program on the map,” Fuchs said. “She was one of our top recruits when I first got there, and you could see her team takes after her as they gave us a great game today.”

The first half was hardly smooth sailing. Near-freezing temperatures and pouring rain, along with the tenacious Liberty defense, kept the Cats from playing “Cat Hockey” in a scoreless first half, according to Fuchs. She said the group had too many turnovers for her liking, adding that these missed opportunities gave the Flames plenty of chances on offense.

“We were a little bit frantic,” Fuchs said. “We weren’t playing our best. Liberty had great tacklers so we really had to adjust.”

From the start of regulation, both squads played aggressively, pushing each other to rev up the pace of the match to hold possession. Liberty exploited NU’s lagging start, dribbling the ball to the Cats’ backline with hopes of a goal. The Flames were nearly successful, earning a corner a minute into the game.

Still, NU’s defensive unit denied Liberty, showcasing a “defense wins championships” mentality. Marshall, junior defender Kayla Blas and graduate student back Maddie Bacskai were the key leaders inside the circle, making big saves during the Flames’ five corner attempts.

But the main piece of the Cats’ show-stopping defensive puzzle was Skubisz. Facing immense pressure from Liberty’s fast-paced forwards, she defended the cage with prestige, shutting out each shot attempt.

Denying five corners in the first half alone, Skubisz credited her teammates for helping her keep her head up.

“You definitely heard more communication from me during those moments of stress to combat (the Flames offense),” Skubisz said. “The team did a really good job of staying on the same page and making sure that people who needed to be pressured were pressured.”

NU’s offense struggled to connect in the first quarter, getting outshot by Liberty and earning just one corner. The second 15-minute period of the half was similar, highlighting a different side of the Cats team that felt the pressure of the high-stakes game.

NU’s slow offensive start seemed to turn when junior Bente Baekers was awarded a penalty stroke opportunity following a Flame foul close to the goalline in the second quarter. Instead of allowing the game’s first score, Liberty goalkeeper Azul Iritxity Irigoyen rejected Baekers’ shot, handing the forward her second career missed penalty stroke. Baekers also missed in the Cats’ semifinal win against Harvard.

During halftime, Zimmer said the squad discussed amplifying its intensity, noting the first 30 minutes lacked drive. Bacskai and Fuchs agreed, saying the team strategized settling its nerves in the next half and playing the Cats’ game on the field.

And NU made those adjustments, immediately winning possession of the ball and shutting out the Flames from any corner attempts through the third and fourth quarter. With the Cats kicking into high gear, the group’s offense started rolling, allowing Marshall to open scoring in the contest from a penalty corner. Zimmer followed with a buzzer-beater, scoring a coast-to-coast fastbreak goal with six seconds remaining in the third quarter.

Following a crushing NCAA tournament loss in the Elite Eight to Iowa in the spring — just six months earlier — Fuchs said winning the title was a full-circle moment for the program. With a talented team, including Princeton transfers Bacskai and graduate student forward Clara Roth, Fuchs said all the pieces of NU’s 2021 fall season “just came together.”

“Over a year ago, when I committed to Northwestern, I called Tracey and told her. ‘We’re winning a national championship,” Bacskai said. “She honestly snickered on the other end, saying, ‘Hold on Maddie, we got Big Ten, we got the Final Four.”

“I went up to her after (the game) and I said, ‘Tracey, we did it.’ We won our national championship.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @sswann301

Related Stories: 

Field Hockey: Northwestern takes down Harvard 2-1 in overtime, will appear in first-ever national championship game

Rapid Recap: Northwestern 2, Harvard 1 (OT)

Field Hockey: Northwestern readies for Final Four battle against Harvard on Friday