Final Foes: Previewing the NCAA Tournament Final Four

Senior Katie Trombetta — the Big Ten Player of the Year —will play a crucial role in Michigan's pursuit of a national championship.

Senior Katie Trombetta — the Big Ten Player of the Year —will play a crucial role in Michigan's pursuit of a national championship. Buy this photo
Arnold Zhou/Daily
Tuesday, November 14, 2017 - 7:46pm

In the early rounds of the NCAA Tournament, the Michigan field hockey team proved it was up to the challenge. The Wolverines dispatched Syracuse and Northwestern to advance to the semifinals. 

Michigan is coming in hot — not allowing a single goal in the postseason so far — but the Final Four will be its biggest test yet. The Daily broke down potential matchups for the Wolverines this weekend in Louisville.

No. 3 Michigan vs. No. 9 Maryland

Prior to its 3-2 double-overtime win in September, Michigan had failed to defeat the Terrapins in 15 years.  That time, it clinched a national championship. So it seems only fitting that the Wolverines will have to get through Maryland one more time.

The Terrapins defeated No. 13 Wake Forest in the round of 16, 2-0, then upset No. 2 Duke in the quarterfinals, 3-2, to advance to the semifinals. There, Michigan awaits.

Maryland, a traditional field hockey powerhouse, brings a well-balanced attack. It ranks 18th in the nation in goals per game and 13th in goals-against average. Midfielder Lein Holsboer led the Terrapins in goals scored and assists. She was named to the All-Big Ten First Team and the All-Big Ten Tournament team.

The Wolverines face a big threat in Holsboer, who scored one of Maryland’s two goals in its earlier matchup. However, as the season progressed, the Wolverines have improved their strategies for overcoming those challenges. Michigan will seek to neutralize Holsboer with its dynamic back line of freshman Halle O’Neill, junior Maggie Bettez and senior Katie Trombetta – the Big Ten Player of the Year. Look for the Wolverines to utilize a 2-on-1 defensive formation for extra protection.

Leading Michigan’s offense on the forward line are fifth-year senior Carly Bennett, junior Emma Way and sophomore Meg Dowthwaite. They contributed to a squad that ranked 11th in the nation in goals per game. On offense, the Wolverines are fast and confident, but their real strength comes from their passing. To keep Michigan off the board, the Terrapins will need to be as aggressive with their blocking as Syracuse was in the NCAA Tournament quarterfinal.

Maryland led the conference in shots, and it will look to overwhelm its opposition with sheer quantity. In senior goalkeeper Sam Swenson – the national leader in save percentage – the Wolverines have just the person for the job.

The Terrapins are a team with no real weaknesses, but Michigan is ranked better in all aspects of the game, making this match the Wolverines’ to lose.

If Michigan does advance past Maryland, it will advance to the title game, where it will face one of two potential opponents.

Michigan vs. No. 4 North Carolina

North Carolina is the underdog in its semifinal match against Connecticut, but if Michigan advances to the title game, it should hope the Tar Heels are there waiting.

That said, North Carolina is no slouch. The Tar Heels outscored their opponents 8-2 in their run to the ACC Tournament championship and earned the fourth overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.

North Carolina does everything well. It ranks sixth in the nation with 3.82 goals per game, a feat more impressive when considering its competitive conference. Rather than one standout on offense, North Carolina has remarkable depth. Seven of its players had five or more goals on the season, with midfielders Ashley Hoffman and Malin Evert leading the tally at 11 apiece.

A leading scorer who also plays defense, Hoffman will be a different look for Michigan. Planning an offensive and defensive attack will be tough against a team with so many hybrid players, but the Wolverines come in with the advantage of having seen the Tar Heels before. Michigan won its season opener against North Carolina, 3-2.

Since then, both teams have improved. But the Tar Heels may be in for a big surprise with the look of the Wolverines’ back line. Neither O’Neill nor Bettez started the season opener, but both have come into their own as vital pieces of Michigan’s defense.

Perhaps the biggest change has been the Wolverines’ approach to penalty corners. They struggled with defending corners in the early part of the season, and North Carolina took advantage in its first match. But the personnel change, along with a focus on corner defense in practice, has led Michigan to be much stingier with allowing goals — posting 15 shutouts in its last 18 games.

The Wolverines have been able to formulate a defensive plan of attack for all types of offenses, an ability that will be more crucial than ever against North Carolina. If these teams play in the title game, it will be closely-fought and low-scoring. However, Michigan’s previous success against the Tar Heels and much-improved defense should make it a slight favorite.

Michigan vs. No. 1 Connecticut

Connecticut is still undefeated at 21-0. The Wolverines lead the nation in goals allowed per game, and the Huskies lead in goals scored.

This matchup, if it happens, will be a clash of the titans.

Connecticut has been unstoppable all year.  The American Athletic Conference may not be as competitive as the Big Ten or ACC, but the Huskies beat top-10 teams Northwestern, Penn State and Michigan.

Forward Charlotte Veitner leads the nation in goals per game, and three Connecticut players – Svea Boker, Amanda Collins and Casey Umstead – rank in the top 10 in assists. The Huskies’ offense is so prolific that they have been held to one goal only once this season.

The two teams met in September and the Huskies came out on top, 2-1. However, like the North Carolina match, this game was early in the season, when both teams were still developing their identities. It was an evenly-matched game, with the ultimate advantage for Connecticut coming on a goal scored off a penalty stroke. Michigan has not allowed another this season.

The other two goals came off penalty corners. While both teams have strong defense on corners, they may provide the best scoring opportunity in a match between two top back lines. The Huskies may be more poised to take advantage, as one of the Wolverines’ few weaknesses in the postseason has been giving up corners. It will be up to Michigan to strike a balance between being conscientious of giving up corners while not becoming too passive.

If the Huskies have any cracks in their foundation, it is their recent performance. Connecticut gave up four goals in its first two NCAA Tournament matches against Boston University and Penn State. Meanwhile, the Wolverines earned shutouts in each of their first two games. It could be a fluke for the Huskies or it could be a product of unfamiliarity with the competition — one disadvantage of a smaller conference.

Still, it’s hard not to give the upper hand to Connecticut. Michigan’s offense has struggled against elite defensive units such as Syracuse and Penn State, from which the Huskies would be a step up. And while the Wolverines’ defense has thus far been prepared for anything, no previous opponent has received offensive production from quite as many sources.

Two teams that seem near unstoppable, with only one of them emerging as champion. This is the matchup the NCAA Tournament deserves.