Most teams only experience the thrill of winning a championship once, if at all.
Placing hats around their ponytails, pulling t-shirts over their uniforms, and lifting a trophy above their heads — these are the moments athletes wait for their whole careers. For some, the wait never ends.
The Michigan field hockey team has six seniors and fifth-year seniors who could have suffered that fate. But the Wolverines made sure their final year would be worth the wait.
Michigan won the Big Ten and the Big Ten Tournament for the first time since 2010. Once the Wolverines caught a glimpse that their dream season could come true, they made sure that it did.
“We were all like, ‘You guys, this is a championship team. We can do this,’” said fifth-year senior Carly Bennett. “That just fueled us tremendously, knowing not only that this is our last year, but this is our last year and we have all of the tools to win. So it was a perfect combination.”
Added senior Katie Trombetta: “There definitely was something magical about this (team) … I’m just so glad we took that feeling and ran with it.”
From the very beginning, they knew they had potential. In the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, Michigan started its season with one-goal victories over then-No. 1 North Carolina and then-No. 15 Wake Forest. Between their senior leadership and freshman talent, the Wolverines knew they could be special.
But the next week, Michigan dropped two games to then-No. 4 Connecticut and then-unranked William and Mary. Suddenly, the Wolverines knew they hadn’t found their rhythm yet. That could have deterred them. They didn’t let it.
“What makes this team different from all the rest that we’ve been on is just the resilience that this team has,” Trombetta said. “Even during games that we may be at a low point … we’re constantly just giving it our all.”
That week taught Michigan an important lesson. It may have had the personnel to be successful, but it needed to have the composure to focus on one game at a time.
For the following 16 games, that’s exactly what the Wolverines did. They haven’t lost a single one of those games.
Each game built upon the foundation of the last, and as Michigan kept rolling, its confidence continued to grow. The Wolverines began to grow more comfortable in their roles at every position and in the lineup as a whole. They learned that they had to stay in the moment in every game, avoiding the temptation to get too high or too low.
But then Michigan had to face Penn State, which was the No. 2 team in the country at the time, in State College. With two undefeated Big Ten records on the line, the game could have swung the conference one way or the another.
It swung in favor of the Wolverines, who came away with a 3-0 victory.
“We came out firing on all cylinders,” said Michigan coach Marcia Pankratz. “We played great top to bottom, left to right, and I think that game went so well (that) the players were like, ‘Wow we can play with anyone in the country.’”
Added Bennett: “It was just the culmination of everything we had been working for. … That was the game where everyone was so connected.”
With that game in hand, Michigan marched through the rest of conference play, knowing full well what it was capable of. It didn’t matter that this year the Big Ten has been the most competitive Pankratz has seen since she took over the helm of the program in 1996. That just made it extra special.
Two weeks ago, the Wolverines faced Northwestern with a chance to win the conference outright for the first time since 2011. With 10 minutes left to play, Trombetta netted the game-winning goal on a direct penalty-corner shot. After ricocheting off a Wildcat defender, the ball settled into the top of the cage.
Call it a lucky bounce if you must. But with the number of close calls Trombetta and her classmates have endured during their Michigan careers, you would be better off calling it poetic justice.
Their freshman year, the Wolverines lost just two conference games, but the second knocked them out of the top spot. Their sophomore year, they made it to the Big Ten Tournament championship, but they suffered a four-goal defeat. And their junior year, Penn State ended another conference tournament run.
Perhaps it was only fitting then, that Sunday morning, the Nittany Lions were the only team standing between Michigan and an elusive Big Ten conference and tournament title sweep.
Even more fitting, it took another fortunate break for the Wolverines to pull it off.
With just five minutes left in the game, Bennett received a pass in prime territory and heard fifth-year senior Esther de Leijer calling for it. With a couple of Penn State defenders breathing down her neck, she sent the ball toward her classmate.
Bennett worried that she had left it short. But de Leijer found her way to it, and with her back to the goal, she pulled it into the near post. The Nittany Lion goalkeeper, who was positioned on the other side of the cage, couldn’t make it over in time.
With another 1-0 win, Michigan won its second title of the season.
“We used our experiences with losing in the past years to fuel us through,” Bennett said, “and I think that translated to the team through all the seniors.”
The seniors only had one more shot at a championship run. After falling just short so many times, that was all the motivation they needed.
Every step of the way, they guided the Wolverines in the direction they needed to go. And in the end, they had the season they have imagined since the start of the year — and the very beginning of their careers.
“There was never a single moment where you didn’t feel the want or the heart from any of our seniors,” Trombetta said. “… We brought it to every single practice and every team meeting, and everyone just fed off of it.”
Added Bennett: “It’s just an overwhelming and humbling experience, and it really does just make you smile the entire time. There really aren’t many words to describe it all.”
One hat, one t-shirt and one trophy would have been enough. But Michigan experienced the thrill of winning a championship twice.
Ashame can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @betelhem_ashame.