Field Hockey: No. 1 Northwestern maintains perfect record against No. 9 Virginia, No. 11 Liberty


Daily file photo by Kelsey Carroll

Junior midfielder Alia Marshall. The Delaware native chipped in two assists in Northwestern’s win against Virginia on Sunday.

Charlotte Varnes, Sports Editor

As the final moments of the third quarter ticked down, Northwestern was up 1-0 against Liberty and looking to maintain momentum. 

The Flames’ (3-2, 0-0 Big East) goalkeeper Azul Iritxity Irigoyen and her defense had blocked shot after shot since NU’s only successful connection at the beginning of the second period. 

Then graduate forward Bente Baekers woke up.

After a quiet first half, Baekers scored twice in 40 seconds to give the Wildcats (6-0, 0-0 Big Ten) a 3-0 lead with less than three minutes to go in the third. She was dynamic: darting into the circle, poised in front of the goal and quietly celebratory after her two goals. And she was more than ready to shake off the slow start.

“I was like, ‘Come on, I’ve been giving balls to Liberty in the stick like five times in a row,’” Baekers said. “‘It’s only 1-0 – if they get back, I’m too tired to play overtime. Let’s just try and get that goal in.’ I ripped it and it went in, thank God.”

It was just another day in the office for Baekers. She led NU with two goals against No. 11 Liberty on Friday – a rematch of the 2021 national championship – and two more in a win against No. 9 Virginia on Sunday. Now, with another pair of ranked victories behind them, the Cats are 6-0 for the second time in program history – and for the first time since 1985.

Overcoming a back-and-forth first quarter, NU led the Flames at halftime. Graduate midfielder Kayla Blas punched in the Cats’ lone score in the second quarter, firing from the top of the circle to notch her first goal of the season. 

Playing a mix of midfield and defense, Blas doesn’t usually find herself in the circle. She said she didn’t even look to see if the shot went in, but realized she connected when she heard the ball smack the backboard and saw her teammates running in her direction. 

Just like November’s national championship, NU knocked off the Flames in a dynamic, shutout win. This time around, it featured Baekers’ heroics and a four save performance from goalkeeper Annabel Skubisz. Coach Tracey Fuchs said her team has tried to avoid looking ahead, instead focusing on each individual matchup. Still, the rematch against Liberty has loomed large above the players’ heads.

“They’ve had it circled for a year,” Fuchs said. “We knew they were going to come out flying with a lot of emotion. I thought we played a nice solid game – maybe not even our best, but we got it done.”

The Cats continued their winning ways on Sunday, dominating Virginia from start to finish. Making the most of penalty corners was key for NU’s offense, with Baekers chipping in two goals off of corners.

Senior midfielder Alia Marshall, who added two assists on Sunday, said the Cats have emphasized finishing every play and executing corners. NU is disciplined in the circle and successful at “simple hockey,” which she said has been key to the team’s offensive success.  

While the Cats’ offense has been turning heads, Fuchs also noted the consistency of the team’s defense, alongside its ability to take pressure off the team’s forwards. Friday marked junior goalkeeper Annabel Skubisz’s third shutout of the season and she continued her hot streak on Sunday, recording two saves against the Hoos. 

Sunday was the finale of a daunting early season schedule for the Cats, who have played six straight games against top 25 programs and will get a reprieve against unranked Penn next week. Few other teams are playing such a competitive schedule, Marshall said. Over the stretch of ranked games, she said the Cats’ confidence has increased. 

While NU is currently atop the rankings, Fuchs said she could see any of the teams in the top ten winning the national championship. For now, she’s proud of the Cats’ play. 

“We’ve made good of our opportunities,” Fuchs said. “We haven’t always had the momentum or played great, but we’re consistent and we fight to the end. That’s really paid off for us.”

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Twitter: @charvarnes11