Allison Engkvist/Daily. Buy this photo.

On a perfect day in late September, the Michigan field hockey program welcomed back the players of the past, from the earliest days of the team to the 2020 national runner-ups. Members of one team, however, stood out the most: the 2001 team, the only ones to have won a national title, returning to the field that 20 years earlier they had called their home.

Some had gone into business following the end of their college careers, others social work and medicine. A few had moved back to their native countries of Germany and Australia, and a handful had made Ann Arbor and the surrounding area their permanent homes. 

Nine have since passed the lessons learned from Pankratz to teams of their own, and one, Kristi Gannon, even coaches the team she once played for, alongside the coach that taught her everything she knows, Marcia Pankratz.

When Gannon stepped onto campus for the first time, Pankratz had breathed new life into a once middling Michigan program. In just five years since her hire in 1996, Pankratz had taken the Wolverines from fifth in the Big Ten standings to two regular season conference championships and two tournament titles. By every metric, Michigan had become a regional power.

All that prevented the Wolverines from cementing themselves in the national picture, however, was the biggest crown of all — a national championship.

After having the title yanked away by Maryland in the 1999 championship game of their first ever NCAA Tournament appearance, Michigan had rebounded to accomplish their best season in program history in 2000, including a sweep of the Big Ten titles. That is, the best season until a disappointing second round loss to Wake Forest. Following the graduation of several key players, the 2001 season was expected to be a quiet one.

“We didn’t have a bunch of superstars on that team like we had in 2000,” Gannon, a sophomore defensive back on the 2001 team, said in a September interview. “

The 2001 team started the season the same way 2000 team had finished — a disappointing 2-3 loss to Wake Forest. Five games later, the Wolverines had posted a 4-2 record. A good start to be sure, but given their two losses came from top-10 teams, a hesitantly good one for the team.

After a pause in the fall athletic season following the events of September 11th, the Wolverines, ranked No. 4 in the first NFHCA Coaches Poll of the season, returned to the field with a 6-0 blowout against Massachusetts. After a 10-1 scathing of Indiana to start Big Ten season two days later, the team appeared to find a groove.

Over the course of the next three weekends, Michigan went on a 6-0 tear through their schedule, picking up a 4-1 win over No. 16 Iowa and stealing an 2-1 overtime victory over No. 7 Michigan State in East Lansing. Entering Columbus to face the No. 10 Ohio State Buckeyes, the now second-ranked Wolverines were back to within a hair’s width of repeating as Big Ten champions, and the potential of a deep NCAA Tournament run was growing.

The Buckeyes had other plans. With a 2-1 upset, the reign over the Big Ten standings came crashing down for Michigan. The next week, a 2-1 loss to No. 15 Penn State on senior day ended hopes for even a potential share of the regular season Big Ten title. Ultimately, the Wolverines would reach their bleakest point in the Big Ten tournament, when Ohio State built on their prior victory to shutout Michigan completely by a score of 3-0. After sweeping the Big Ten titles the year before, the Wolverines made a far more dubious sweep in 2001; third place in the regular season, third place in the tournament.

After returning to Ann Arbor, Michigan awaited the news of its early round draw for the NCAA Tournament. The locker room was quiet, deep in thought and perhaps a tinge of doubt in themselves. The silence was suddenly broken, however, by Gannon.

“(Gannon) stood up and told the girls, ‘My old history teacher used to have a saying,’” Pankratz recalled. “‘He would say before exams when we were cramming to be the boat.’”

Be the boat?

“‘Imagine you’re on a boat water skiing,’” Pankratz continued. “‘You can either be the water skier and get whipped around and yanked for the ride by the boat and the waves, or you can be the boat driver and control the ride for someone else.

“‘I’d rather yank them around than have them yank us around.’”

The mantra sparked the locker room like gasoline. In practice and around town, the team began to wear t-shirts adorned with the words and a drawing of a boat, a constant reminder to themselves and any teammates they saw that the team was going to fight to the bitter end. When word came that the early rounds would be hosted in Ann Arbor for the very first time, the fire amongst the team only intensified. Like the animal they’re named after, the seventh-ranked Wolverines were ready to take on any team, by any means necessary.

The spark came not a moment too soon. For their part, the NCAA had balanced Michigan’s home field advantage by making the Wolverines have to navigate No. 4 North Carolina in the first round, and if they advanced, a presumed rematch with Michigan State, which had tied Michigan at No. 7 in the final poll. Looking forward, it was likely a Final Four run would have to go through two more top-10 teams. For Michigan, the road to the national championship would most likely run through four of the best teams in the country.

In summary, there was zero allowance for error.

“To be honest, I don’t think there was ever a point in that tournament we were 100% confident we’d win until we had the trophy physically in our hands,” April Franzoni, a sophomore forward on the 2001 team, said in a September interview. “We sure as hell didn’t show that in the games though.”

Franzoni took the Tar Heels to their limit in the first game, scoring a hat trick en route to a 5-2 beatdown of North Carolina. After a second 2-1 overtime victory over Michigan State, the statement had been made loud and clear: this was not the team that had exited the Big Ten tournament on a whimper.

While Pankratz was herself thrilled to advance, keeping the team grounded amongst the thrills — “pampering” as one player put it — a national final brings became a priority. With No. 6 Princeton waiting in the wings and No. 1 Maryland, the very team that had ended Michigan’s title hopes in 1999, likely to follow, even a moment’s lapse of the grit that had propelled the Wolverines through the early rounds would be fatal.

“We did a lot that weekend to keep the girls from getting too big of heads,” Pankratz said.

After the disappointment of the 2000 season and the fight needed to get through the second half of the 2001 season, on Nov. 16, Michigan finally returned to the Final Four. It didn’t start with a bang for the Wolverines; Princeton welcomed Michigan to the finals by converting an early penalty corner less than 10 minutes into the game. In the 22nd minute of the first half, the Wolverines tied the game at 1-1, but the Tigers again took the lead five minutes into the second half.

For the first time in their NCAA Tournament run, Michigan was firmly on its heels. Just as Gannon had told her teammates not to get yanked around, though, junior forward Molly Powers refused to let the Tigers get comfortable. As Princeton still enjoyed the elation of their goal, Powers fired a shot over the head of goalkeeper Kelly Baril. On the scoreboard, a mere 40 seconds had passed.

“They were starting to get confident,” Powers said in an interview following the game. “We wanted to steal the momentum back from them.”

Four minutes later, Franzoni ripped a shot from the right side of the arc, a shot claimed to be “near-impossible” by Paul Thomas of MGoBlue.com after the game, and found the net. At last, the Wolverines finally led.

They refused to let it be taken away, adding an insurance goal to finish the game 4-2. All that stood between Michigan and the national championship was one final game against Maryland.

“We all woke up (the day of the title game) weirdly calm,” Franzoni said. “The jitters I thought I’d get never came.”

The Terrapins, to their credit, were more than prepared to face the Wolverines. In a barrage of offense, Maryland fired off 20 shots in the national title game, 11 on net.

But Michigan never wavered, and senior goalkeeper Maureen Tasch was never beaten, providing a shutout performance to which Gannon and freshman Adrienne Hortillosa supported with a goal each.

At the final buzzer, Michigan had beaten Maryland, 2-0. The final ghost of the past had been vanquished, and the Wolverines were the national champions.

“It was a flood of emotions,” Pankratz said. “Joy obviously, pride in my team, relief that we had defended against Maryland’s aggressive offense so well.

“I was so, so proud of the girls. It was their team at the end, and that’s how we won it all.”

Twenty years later, no matter where they’ve ended up, all of the women that made up the 2001 team consider their teammates nothing less than family.

“We had to rely on each other to win that title,” Franzoni, now April Bertin, said. “They’re still some of my closest friends.”

“We stay in each other’s homes, we cheer on each other’s kids,” Fisher said. “We’re just as close a team now as we were 20 years ago.”

As time as gone on, the significance of the national title being the first for any women’s team sport in Michigan history has also taken on a different appreciation. The title is still one of only three won by a Michigan women’s team, having been joined by softball in 2005 and gymnastics in 2021.

“Field hockey has had such a rich history here in Ann Arbor,” Franzoni, now a coach at nearby Pioneer High School, said. “It means a lot to have added our own little place in it.”

Watching the 2021 Wolverines, themselves in the national title conversation, a common question was asked amongst and to the alumni; who would win, the 2001 team, or the 2021 team?

“I’ve gotten asked this a lot lately,” Franzoni said with a hearty laugh. “We were a gritty team. Not the most skilled, but the most heart. We’d give them a fight.”

Gannon added: “Well you know what I have to say, I have to be loyal to that 2001 team. But it’d be a great game.”

Pankratz added: “All I’ll say is, the rules have changed, but the athletes haven’t. They were great athletes then, and they’re great athletes still.”

Daily sports writer David Woelkers can be reached at dawo@umich.edu or on Twitter at @dawjr98