Football: ‘It’s so much fun to watch them:’ What Northwestern football is learning from field hockey’s success and swagger


Joanne Haner/Daily Senior Staffer

Junior wide receiver Bryce Kirtz looks to get in position on the field. The Wildcats are back in action this Saturday against Miami (OH).

The Wildcats’ football and field hockey teams ran their practices in adjacent fields last fall, but the results were polar opposites. While the football squad tumbled to the bottom of the Big Ten West standings, field hockey won the program’s first national championship. 

A couple of weeks into the 2022 season of competition, the contrast has continued.

Coming off a historic field hockey season that ended with an NCAA Division I Championship title, the Cats are rocking and rolling this fall season. Currently undefeated and ranked number one in the nation, NU is leaving its mark on the turf and showing the division there is a high chance for a consecutive title run.

Led by coach Tracey Fuchs, the Cats returned star fifth-year forward Bente Baekers, junior midfielder Maddie Zimmer, senior midfielder Alia Marshall and junior goalkeeper Annabel Skubisz. 

Fuchs told The Daily on Sept. 11 that being “dangerous” all over the field has contributed to NU’s success this season. From Baekers’ play on offense to Zimmer’s power in the midfield, there are multiple traits that have set the Cats apart. 

NU’s field hockey dominance these past two seasons has inspired its next door neighbors, the football program, according to starting quarterback junior Ryan Hilinski.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of things you can learn from a team as successful as them,” Hilinski said. “When you look at it, it comes back to having fun with it.”

Hilinski accredited the football team’s enjoyment on the field whether at practice or at games to field hockey, saying those bonding moments creates a stronger team all around. He said practicing across from the team every morning on the lakeside fields has taught him the most important part is simply having fun. 

Despite NU football’s rocky start this season, Hilinski said the crew can’t harp on the past. Instead, he said the players have to remember that it’s about having fun and going harder in the next game. With the field hockey team’s success right in their backyard, Hilinski said he is confident the Cats will find their groove.

“Definitely with teams with success like that around, it’s easy to kind of latch on to that and hope to get some success from it as well as some energy from it,” Hilinski said.

NU’s success on the field hockey turf wasn’t always easy, with a nail-biting loss in the 2021 spring NCAA tournament that ended the Cats’ postseason unexpectedly. Fuchs, Zimmer and Skubisz all recounted the feeling of that loss and the ways it pushed the team to go even harder in the 2021 fall season.

The team’s hard work is something football head coach Pat Fitzgerald said has been a real motivation for his team this season. Both Fuchs and Fitz have spent years coaching for the purple and white, making memories and consoling each other during tough losses. With both sports happening in the fall, the squads make an effort to come out and support each other to foster the strong athletic community.

“Coach Fuchs and I are very close, love her dearly,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s so much fun to watch them, to say the least.”

The two coaches’ bond off the field has created a strong connection between both squads, allowing players like Hilinski to learn from Zimmer on the practice field. Fitzgerald said the field hockey team’s success in the past year has only pushed him and his players to work “ten times harder.” 

As both teams work through their regular seasons, NU football seeks to recover and get back into the win column and push through their miscues on the field. With the close proximity of the field hockey team, both Fitzgerald and Hilinski said they believe the football team is not far from getting the same momentum.

Both teams are back in action this weekend, with field hockey taking on Iowa and football squaring off with Miami (Ohio). Regardless of the results, the bond between the Cats across both programs has left a lasting impact on both programs.

“They’ve earned it, and that’s something we hope to gain with this year’s squad with us,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s amazing how momentum can be such a great thing that builds upon itself.”

Charlotte Varnes contributed reporting. 

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