Undefeated Wildcats prepare for clash with Hawkeyes
By Logan Schiciano
Kayla Blas has had Sept. 23 circled on her calendar for months.
“I’m just looking forward to a Big Ten home opener,” said Blas, a fifth-year midfielder for the undefeated Northwestern Field Hockey team. “We’re just going to go out there and play for each other and hopefully have a good game.”
Two top-five teams will clash when the Wildcats take the pitch opposite the No. 5 Iowa Hawkeyes on Friday. The matchup produced two of last year’s more memorable contests, including a dramatic 1-0 Northwestern victory that sent the ‘Cats to their first Final Four since 1994.
Northwestern returns to Lakeside Field after facing some adversity for the first time all season. The ‘Cats fended-off unranked University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia on Friday, 4-3, but trailed for most of the first half. A strong, three-goal third quarter gave Northwestern the lead for good and had Head Coach Tracey Fuchs praising her team’s resilience.
“We were a little flat at Penn but we just kept fighting,” Fuchs told WNUR Sports on Wednesday. “We knew eventually a few would fall and finally they did. That was a good win against a really scrappy team.”
Junior Maddie Zimmer was relentless in the win, recording a career high nine shots with six on goal against the Quakers. She also opened the scoring for Northwestern with an impressive solo score.
The road trip concluded on Sunday when Northwestern edged No. 8 Princeton, 2-1, in the Wildcats first overtime game since last year’s Final Four game against Harvard. An early second half goal by the Tigers’ Beth Yeager put the top-ranked ‘Cats in a hole and had Princeton fans itching for an upset. But like so many times in its historic 2021-campaign, Northwestern had an answer.
With less than five minutes in regulation, senior Peyton Halsey converted her fourth goal of the year off of an assist from Bente Baekers. Halsey is tied for second on the team in goals and has scored more times in 2022 than she did all of last year (2). In overtime, Northwestern had several chances before finally getting the game winner from Alia Marshall. The junior midfielder took the feed from Baekers and had her cross redirected into the cage for a goal.
“It was amazing,” Blas said. “We were honestly a bit relieved, but also so excited we could pull out the win and get some Dairy Queen on the way home.”
Despite not scoring on Sunday, Baekers earned her second consecutive Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week – the first Wildcat to win the award in back-to-back weeks.
With the non-conference schedule over, the ‘Cats shift their attention towards winning a Big Ten Championship – something they failed to do a year ago. The Hawkeyes come into Evanston with the same goal, and perhaps some added motivation after Northwestern ousted them from the NCAA tournament last year.
Iowa’s only loss of this year came against No. 2 North Carolina in overtime. Though the Hawkeyes don’t score at quite the rate Northwestern does, Fuchs said their defense will be tough to penetrate.
“We’re not going to have as many opportunities as we had against maybe Penn or even Princeton. When we’re in the circle, we’ve got to put our shots on cage,” Fuchs said. “I think the battle will probably come down to which team is able to draw and execute corners the best.”
Iowa likes to get off to hot starts, scoring in the first three minutes of its last three games. Fuchs said she is counting on Blas, who is tied-second in the nation in assists, to take control on both sides of the ball.
“Kayla is our glue in the midfield,” Fuchs said. “She and Lauren Wadas really hold this team together. We have so many weapons that each and every day somebody else steps up.”
Northwestern will look to improve to 9-0 on the season and continue its best start since 1985 when the bout with Iowa gets underway shortly after 3 p.m. CST on Friday.