Wildcats set for high-stakes home opener

By Logan Schiciano

The last time Northwestern field hockey ran onto a pitch with Liberty, the Wildcats emerged with the first national championship in program history. As the celebration began at Phyllis Ocker Field last November, there was still a sense of shock in the air. 

“I can’t believe that we’re here. I’m actually kind of shaking right now,” said then-sophomore Maddie Zimmer, moments after the final buzzer sounded in Ann Arbor. 

Northwestern was considered the underdog throughout its tournament run in 2021. But as the Wildcats enter their home opener on Friday – a rematch with Liberty – they’re in a much different position as the top-ranked team in the nation.  

“We know there’s a target on our back,” said Zimmer, a midfielder. “But I think that’s good. It pushes us to improve every game.”

That aggressive mindset has paid dividends thus far in 2022. Northwestern is off to a 4-0 start for the first time since 2004, and all of its victories have come against top-25 teams. 

The ‘Cats are led offensively by senior Bente Baekers, who has raced out of the gates with eight goals. Zimmer said what makes the Dutch forward so prolific is her ability to kickstart the offense.

“Obviously she scores a lot, but her role elsewhere on the field goes a bit unnoticed,” Zimmer said. “She’s really crucial in our buildup and we have to give credit to her for that too.” 

With a veteran unit that only suffered the loss of two starters from last year (Clara Roth and Maddie Bacskai), Northwestern has held strong on defense as well. The ‘Cats have shut out their opponents in back-to-back games and goalie Annabel Skubisz is the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week. 

Still, senior defender Alia Marshall said Northwestern has been working to tighten its back line in preparation for Liberty – the nation’s most prolific offense last year. 

“It all starts with our press,” Marshall said. “Our main goal is to get their eyes down and not let their midfielders get a lot of space. We’ve already been working on our circle defense and also it helps to have someone as incredible as Annabel in goal.”

Friday’s bout with the Flames will mark Northwestern’s first contest at Lakeside Field this season. 

The ‘Cats first four games came across two consecutive weekends in Massachusetts. The team practiced in the commonwealth throughout the week before partaking in the Boston Red Sox’s “Field Hockey Day.” Northwestern was joined at Fenway Park by high school and collegiate field hockey teams, including Maryland, Duke and Boston College. 

“It was really cool to connect with them in a less-stressful setting,” Marshall said. “And obviously Fenway is historic, so that was pretty awesome too.” 

Back in Evanston now, Zimmer said Northwestern is staying calm ahead of its third meeting with the Flames in the past year. 

“I don’t think we’re treating this with any more importance than any other game,” Zimmer said. “This is a new season. We’re a new team and if we play to our strengths, hopefully we’ll come out with a win.”

It appears Liberty is trying to put last year’s National Championship behind them as well, but for different reasons. The team posted a video on its Instagram Wednesday with the caption “#sowhat.” 

Northwestern announced on social media that Friday will be the ‘Cat’s “Pride Game” and that tickets are free. The game begins at 4 p.m. CST. 

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