Looking back, it’s hard to believe that the Wolverines got off to a 3-2 start. In a single week in September, the Michigan field hockey team lost twice. It hasn’t lost since, and throughout the team's 15-game winning streak, the third-ranked Wolverines have been on a constant upswing.
In Friday’s Big Ten Tournament semifinal against Northwestern, it took just 40 seconds for sophomore midfielder Guadalupe Fernandez Lacort to score the game-winning goal. Her shot sailed past the goalkeeper and Michigan’s confidence subsequently soared.
“It sets the tone, but also settles our team down with their nerves and brings their confidence into play,” said Michigan coach Marcia Pankratz.
It’s that confidence that has improved over the course of the season and led the team to unprecedented heights.
“They’re staying composed, playing with a lot of confidence,” Pankratz said. “I think the team dynamics are really strong.”
Northwestern put that composure to the test with a relentless approach, and the Wolverines passed with flying colors.
“(We knew) Northwestern would give us everything they had and more,” said junior defender Maggie Bettez. “It was really important to stay organized and have a lot of talk … and listen to the people in front of us and behind us.”
Over the season, better communication between the offense and defense were a byproduct of the improved confidence, allowing for a more balanced approach against high-level teams.
“Some of our best offense comes from being in sync,” Bettez said. “Our opportunities come when we communicate. Everyone knows their role and takes full advantage of it.”
Another key for Michigan has been the development of its young players. Sophomore forward Meg Dowthwaite was second in the Big Ten in scoring and was named to the All-Big Ten first team, one of only two underclassmen bestowed that honor. And Fernandez Lacort finished fifth in the league in assists. Each contributed a goal to Friday’s win.
“The older leaders of the team have been able to set them up for success and make them feel really confident and comfortable out there,” Pankratz said. “I was really proud of how they executed.”
After seeing the Wildcats the first time, the Wolverines knew what they had to do.
“They took a lot of risks and that posed some problems for us,” Pankratz said, “but I was proud of our team for staying composed and making good decisions.”
Those adjustments were vital against a team that ranked second in the Big Ten in goals scored. Michigan executed tricky passes down the field and implemented a two-on-one defensive strategy.
“We wanted to play fast and play to our own potential,” Bettez said. “Play our game.”
In the end, their new approach worked, and the Wolverines shut out the Wildcats.
Though Michigan’s slow start to the season didn’t foreshadow such monumental improvements, Pankratz isn’t surprised by how far her team has come since then.
“It’s a reflection of the team’s hard work and their own talent,” she said.
Now, the Wolverines will put those improvements to the ultimate test in Sunday’s final against Penn State. A win will allow them to sweep the conference regular-season and tournament titles.
“It’s a goal that we’ve had the whole season,” Bettez said, “so it’s really exciting to put ourselves in a place to be able to achieve that.”