Field hockey coach Marcia Pankratz hasn’t opened a season against a different pair of opponents since 2002, but similarity hasn’t made the annual launch any easier.

This year’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge brings together four programs from the NFCHA top-25 preseason rankings. No. 14 Michigan, No. 2 North Carolina, No. 11 Wake Forest and No. 17 Iowa kick off their seasons together for the 13th consecutive year.

Michigan follows up a Saturday afternoon matchup against the Tar Heels with the Sunday meeting versus the Demon Deacons. The highly anticipated games provide daunting foes for a strong Michigan team.

“We like to set expectations high,” Pankratz said in an interview with WTKA. “It helps us gauge where we are and where we need to go to get ready for the rest of the season.”

The Wolverines prepped for this outing with a 2-0 exhibition victory against Michigan State last weekend. First-half scores from sophomore midfielder Veerle Lubbers and redshirt sophomore Cassie Ammerman propelled Michigan over the Spartans offensively, and the shutout verified Michigan’s presumably solid defense.

After a breakout debut season where Lubbers started all 20 games, the Dutch midfielder, one of many internationals on the roster, is looking to continue her success. She tallied 10 assists last season, the second-highest on the team.

Returning to the roster is a veteran defensive core comprised of redshirt junior Caroline Chromik and fifth-year senior Mackenzie Ellis, both captains. Senior back Lauren Thomas is also expected to remain in the starting lineup.

This experienced defense faces a much tougher test against North Carolina, a powerhouse school that is predicted to win the ACC and make a run for the national title.

Michigan failed to make the NCAA Tournament in 2014, while Big Ten opponents Northwestern, Penn State and Maryland earned spots. The conference is one of the strongest in terms of field hockey, but out-of-conference matchups are still crucial for the Wolverines to earn a bid to the 16-team tournament.

Wins against North Carolina and Wake Forest would certainly boost Michigan in the rankings.

The blue turf of Ocker Field spotlights collegiate field hockey’s opening weekend, and it will garner even more attention come late November when the stadium hosts the national championship.

The forecast for the 2015 NCAA field hockey season has Ann Arbor written all over it.

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