Championship ‘Cats: Northwestern claims first field hockey title in school history

By Logan Schiciano

“We’re gonna win a national championship.” 

That’s what graduate student Maddie Bacskai told head coach Tracey Fuchs on the phone when Bacskai committed to play her final season of field hockey at Northwestern. 

“Alright, Maddie. Hold your horses. We’ll see,” Fuchs responded on the phone that day. 

A little more than a year later, Bacskai approached Fuchs on Phyllis Ocker Field donning a white t-shirt with golden letters across the front that read: 2021 National Champions. 

“Tracey we did it. We won a national championship.”

Bacskai and her team defeated No. 9 Liberty 2-0 Sunday in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to capture the 2021 NCAA Division I Field Hockey Championship. 

The teams entered the final as the two best offenses in the nation, and their prowesses were on full display in the first half. There were 11 penalty corners in the opening 30 minutes, but none found the back of the cage. 

After a shaky first few minutes where the Flames dominated possession, Northwestern found its footing in the second period, racking up 10 shots in the direction of Liberty goalie Azul Iritxity Irigoyen. The ‘Cats’ best opportunity came three minutes into the period when they were granted a rare penalty stroke. 

Redshirt junior Bente Baekers took the shot but was denied by Irixity Irigoyen. 

Her second penalty miss in as many games had the crowd in shock, as Baekers had been successful on every other penalty stroke in her career prior to Friday’s Final Four game. The Netherlands native threw her stick to the ground, indicative of the ‘Cats first half as a whole – filled with chances but nothing to show for them on the scoreboard. 

At halftime, Fuchs tried to quell the tension. 

“I told them to calm down. We knew we played a better second quarter. We just had to adjust and be strong,” she said in her postgame press conference. 

Perhaps it was the coach’s message, or maybe something else that made a difference, because after the break, Northwestern started cashing in. 

On the ‘Cats’ first corner of the half, Alia Marshall tipped in Maren Seidel’s shot to break the ice and put Northwestern up one. Then, as time ticked down in the third period, Maddie Zimmer found the back of the cage to double the NU’s lead. 

Northwestern looked rejuvenated on the defensive end as well. In stark contrast to the first half, the back unit yielded just one shot and no penalty corners in the final two periods. 

In the fourth period, the crowd filled with players’ families, Northwestern field hockey alumnae and current students began to sense victory, breaking into various chants along the sideline. When the final horn sounded, the team dog-piled on goalie Annabel Skubisz and celebrated with their championship trophy – the first in the program’s 45-year history. 

Several Wildcats earned All-Tournament Team honors, and Zimmer was named NCAA Tournament Most Valuable Player. She finished the tournament with two goals.

“I’m so excited. I can’t believe that we’re here. I’m actually kind of shaking right now,” Zimmer said. 

Fuchs had high praise for the M.V.P. after the game. 

“She’s a world class player,” Fuchs said. “She’s going to continue to grow and be a force on the world stage soon.”

The championship caps off a historic season for Northwestern, who had several huge wins along the way. The ‘Cats beat then-No. 1 Iowa at the end of October and proceeded to send the Hawkeyes packing in the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament – one year after the Hawkeyes knocked out the ‘Cats in the second round. Northwestern also shut out the three-time defending champion UNC in the first round and bettered the best defensive team in the country Harvard in the Final Four. 

Sunday was Liberty’s first NCAA Championship appearance and only its’ third loss of the season (second to Northwestern). They stunned top-seed Rutgers in the quarterfinals and needed overtime to get past Maryland in the Final Four. 

For Fuchs, it is her second national championship as a coach and third overall. 

“It’s hard to get to the Final Four, it’s hard to get to the final game, and obviously it’s really hard to win it all, but we put the pieces together at the right time,” Fuchs said. “We have a bunch of gamers who didn’t quit and will not quit.”

Field hockey is the third sport in which Northwestern has won a national championship. The others are men’s fencing (1941) and women’s lacrosse (seven times). Northwestern is also just the twelfth team in NCAA history to win a field hockey championship.