When then-junior forward Emma Way tipped a pass between the legs of Northwestern goalkeeper Annie Kalfa on Nov. 12 — completing a hat trick — it all but sealed the Wolverines’ 18th win in a row. Minutes later, it was official: for the first time since 2003, the Michigan field hockey team was going to the Final Four.

And though the Wolverines met their demise in the NCAA semifinals against Maryland, the Final Four run capped off Michigan’s best season in years — a season few saw coming at the beginning of it. After years of relative mediocrity, the Wolverines put everyone on watch.

This year, after losing two key pieces to a defense that last season served up 16 shutouts and finished second in the country in goals-against average, Michigan will have to retool its identity if it wants to build on last season’s result. But with a wealth of young talent and the continued development of returning players, the Wolverines have the pieces to contend again.

Gone are midfielder and back Katie Trombetta — the 2017 Big Ten Player of the Year — and goalkeeper Sam Swenson, named the 2017 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Instead, sophomore Halle O’Neill and senior Maggie Bettez will anchor the Wolverines’ defense.

As a true freshman, O’Neill didn’t expect to start right away, but it soon became clear that her presence bolstered the back line. Her performance was good enough to earn her a spot on the U21 National Team. Bettez, meanwhile, also turned heads with her aggressiveness in the backfield— and while their contributions were relatively unsung, their development could provide the foundation for another elite defensive unit. With sophomore goalkeeper Sidonie LaPlante — who has just three career appearances — facing the daunting task of replacing Swenson, a strong back line could go a long way.

The offense, meanwhile, returns its most prolific goal-scorers in senior Emma Way and junior Meg Dowthwaite. The tandem led Michigan in the postseason — Dowthwaite’s overtime goal in the NCAA Round of 16 against Syracuse broke a scoreless tie, and Way’s hat trick provided all the offense the Wolverines needed in their quarterfinal against the Wildcats. Dowthwaite was an All-Big Ten First Team selection last season.

And while the midfielders are Michigan’s least-experienced group, they have the potential to develop into one of the conference’s top units. Junior Guadalupe Fernandez Lacort — who co-led the team in assists last season — and sophomore Kayla Reed return as starters, and with 10 midfielders on the roster, coach Marcia Pankratz will have a lot of depth to experiment with.

Among those midfielders are two notable incoming freshmen in Kathryn Peterson and Sofi Southam. Peterson, ranked the No. 8 recruit in the nation, is a versatile passer who is strong offensively and defensively. Southam — like Fernandez Lacort a product of Argentina — was selected for the elite USA Field Hockey U21 Junior National Camp.

The Wolverines once again face a tough schedule that will give them the opportunity to test themselves against the top teams in the country. Among the slate is a rematch with the Terrapins — a perennial Big Ten powerhouse — as well as games against Connecticut and North Carolina, the other Final Four teams. Michigan upset the Tar Heels last year, but the Huskies — the eventual national champions — served up one of the Wolverines’ three losses. Michigan’s schedule also features four other tournament teams in Wake Forest, Northwestern, Penn State and Stanford, all four of which it defeated in 2017.

Though the Wolverines lost several top players, last year’s Final Four squad also featured several standout underclassmen who will now have the chance to step up and lead the team. If they can build on last season and take their games to the next level, Michigan’s graduation losses might soon be forgotten.

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