When the Michigan field hockey schedule was created, it was assumed this past weekend’s games against Northwestern and Louisville would be competitive. Following the release of the NFHCA coaches poll earlier last week though, it was revealed how much of a gauntlet it actually was; Northwestern just outside of the top five, and Louisville at No. 3. With Michigan holding ground in the No. 2 slot, it was the kind of weekend you’d expect from the NCAA tournament, not a series in early October.
The Wolverines didn’t back down from the challenge, however, and cemented their place in the highest caliber of Division I with a 2-1 double overtime win over the No. 6 Wildcats on Friday and a 2-1 win over the Cardinals on Sunday to sweep the weekend.
Both games were close until the final buzzer, in contrast to the blowouts Michigan racked up in early season play. While the double overtime nail-biter against the Wildcats was the most visibly contested game, the Wolverines were equally pushed by the Cardinals, who erased an early 1-0 lead in the third quarter and kept the game tied up into late in the fourth, when a penalty corner shot off the stick of redshirt senior midfielder Halle O’Neill finally broke the stalemate.
“We were playing on heavy legs after Friday,” Michigan coach Marcia Pankratz said Sunday. “The girls played as hard as they would with a week’s rest though. I’m super proud of their grittiness.”
Entering the weekend, members of the team confessed that nerves had been high. After playing two highly ranked teams in then-first-ranked North Carolina and then-eleventh-ranked Wake Forest to start the season, the majority of games since have been played against unranked opponents, allowing few opportunities to test their game-plan. Coming home from a close brush with No. 18 Ohio State, Pankratz drilled the team on maintaining pace and keeping a cool head in high pressure situations, cognizant of the threat to their undefeated record poised by the aggressive offenses of Northwestern and Louisville.
On Friday, the Wildcats gave Michigan the scare the Wolverines had been preparing for. For much of the game, Northwestern dictated the pace and put Michigan on their heels, becoming the first team this season to out-shoot the Wolverines. As the second overtime period headed to its end and a shootout loomed, Michigan found another gear, ending the game on a walk-off penalty corner shot by sophomore midfielder Anouk Veen.
“We were definitely nervous going into the game,” Veen said. “Being able to shake that off and stand on our feet was huge.”
Building on the lessons learned against Northwestern, Michigan was able to match Louisville shot for shot, and ultimately finished with 10 shots to the Cardinals’ seven. While the game was hard fought, the Wolverines were much more in control of the game from buzzer to buzzer, pushing Louisville back at almost every surge.
“We’ve been playing down to our opponents lately,” O’Neill said on Sunday. “This week we stepped up and played at the level we want to be playing at”
For several members of the team, what mattered most in the victories was the ability to stay calm despite the nerves. It was observable in the team’s play: from warm-ups to the final buzzer, the team danced to the music coming over the speakers, laughed with each other and tried to keep the game in perspective. Both game winners came off corners given from lengthy video reviews, in which the team was able to huddle together and take a breath.
“The music is one of our inside jokes,” senior goalkeeper Anna Spieker said Friday. “It keeps up from freaking out and getting too in our heads.”
Spieker provided both a brick wall in the net for Michigan, finishing the weekend on a near perfect 12-for-14 save record, as well as acting as a source of spirit while on the field.
“When you see Anna dancing in the goal, it’s hard not to smile to yourself,” senior midfielder Kathryn Peterson said Sunday. “If she’s not panicked, we can’t be panicked either.”
Daily sports writer David Woelkers can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @dawjr98