Josie Gooch runs after the ball with her lacrosse stick in her hand.
Julianne Yoon/Daily.  Buy this photo.

Friday’s upset victory against Notre Dame wasn’t easy, but the Michigan women’s lacrosse team wouldn’t want it any other way. 

After a season of ups and downs, the Wolverines dug their heels in and grinded their way into the second round.

From the opening draw control, Michigan reached deeper than it has all season and took the fight to the Fighting Irish. For a team that had lost its last four matchups against ranked opponents, the key to the Wolverines’ game was simple: fight, fight and fight some more.

They didn’t mean this as a metaphorical fight either. Michigan engaged in a hard-nosed, physical playstyle that disrupted the Notre Dame offense, and overpowered the Fighting Irish defense.

“It’s always a physical battle,” Michigan coach Hannah Nielsen said. “I think that’s our bread and butter. You know, we may not have the Sportscenter clips, or the showy stick skills and flashiness, but we’ve always got the down and dirty. Doing the gritty stuff.”

Gritty is the precise term for how the Wolverines play. From scrums for ground ball pickups to heavy defensive contact, Michigan dared its opposition to meet them at the point of attack and battle. And if the Wolverines want another win on Sunday, they need to stick to that bread and butter — no matter what.

Like any battle, Friday’s skirmish was not without its hiccups. Michigan’s tenacity, and the penalties that often followed, gifted Notre Dame 10 free position shot attempts. Fortunately for the Wolverines, the Fighting Irish were unable to convert on these chances which let them fall to Michigan.

Northwestern is a different story. The Wildcats — the fourth-ranked team in the tournament — will not gift the Wolverines with a cascade of missed opportunities. In fact, of the 22 goals that Northwestern scored in their hammering of Central Michigan, eight came off of free position shots alone.

Nevertheless, Michigan should not change its tune. On Sunday, the Wolverines don’t need to be the more talented team. They just need to be the best version of themselves.

“Putting our heads down and going to work — I really truly think that was what set us apart tonight,” Nielsen said. “We stuck true to who we are. And it worked out really well for us.”

And if Michigan can keep that up, it can compete with the dangerous Wildcats. 

Northwestern, once seemingly invincible, has struggled in the past three weeks. Struggles which the Wolverines must exploit if they want to continue their upset streak.

The Wildcats falter when they can’t set their footing. In their losses to Rutgers and Maryland, they were unable to generate their patented offensive output. In both games their opposition outscored them in the first and second quarters, leaving Northwestern to play catchup in the second half.

If Michigan can come out hot and repeat the lead they had going into the first half against Notre Dame, it might just pull the rug out from under Northwestern. The Wolverines need to batten down the hatches, and prepare for another gritty grind.

“With our playing style, our whole team is gritty,” Fifth year attacker Caitlin Muir said. “We’re tough. We’re always trying to be the first ones up when we get hit. And I feel like that was showcased today and throughout the season.”

But if Michigan cannot achieve this, it does not bode well for the Wolverines.

Michigan is no stranger to playing catchup either. In their last five losses, the Wolverines faced deficits at the half and were forced to attempt a come-from-behind victory — all of which evidently did not come to pass.

So to ensure another upset on Sunday, Michigan must come out and hit hard, hit fast — and most importantly:

Hit first.