All season long, the Michigan field hockey team seemed unstoppable on defense. 

Its back line — made up of senior Katie Trombetta, junior Maggie Bettez and freshman Halle O’Neill — played a large role in how the Wolverines outperformed expectations, rising from No. 11 at the beginning of the season to No. 3 by the end. But in Friday’s NCAA Tournament semifinal match against Maryland, the Terrapins flipped the defensive script and played like an elite squad.

In the midfield, Maryland commanded the ball and kept it away from its goal throughout the game.

“They were beating us to almost every ball, and that created some havoc,” said Michigan coach Marcia Pankratz.

Meanwhile, the Wolverines’ defensive line didn’t play like itself, allowing the Terrapins into the circle more than it would have liked. Maryland outshot Michigan, 9-5, with eight of those shots on goal.

Senior goalkeeper Sam Swenson had an off day, allowing a season-high five goals. But with as much possession as the Terrapins had throughout, it would have been difficult to stop every shot.

“Our confidence started to get shaky,” Pankratz said, “so some of the things we were doing earlier in the year to break presses, our players weren’t as confident to do them today.”

Maryland found great success with its aggressive pass coverage. Michigan’s defense executed several steals, but struggled with turning the ball over themselves. With no one open to pass to, the Wolverines were often forced to hit the ball out of bounds. That gave the Terrapins’ offense more opportunities, some of which it converted into goals.

“They were quick to the ball,” Pankratz said, “and we couldn’t seem to find the lanes that we normally saw.”

Late in the second half, the Wolverines pulled Swenson entirely in hopes of sparking something on offense, but that move backfired as the back line was unable to keep Maryland out of the circle. With an empty net, Michigan couldn’t prevent a goal when the Terrapins drew a penalty corner.

Instrumental in Maryland’s defensive dominance was the way it implemented its game plan. Against an elite back line like the Wolverines’, it was important to defend the defense as much as the offense, something many other teams Michigan faced were unable to do.

“They just executed really, really well,” Pankratz said.

The good news for the Wolverines is that there is every reason to believe they will be a strong team next year, too. While the loss of Trombetta and Swenson will undoubtedly hurt, O’Neill and Bettez made strides this year and will be ready to undertake more of a leadership role on the back line.

And despite its semifinal letdown, Michigan’s season — which included an 18-game winning streak with 15 shutouts — can be categorized as a success. They may have had a bad day Friday, but the Wolverines wouldn’t have those accomplishments without the contributions of the defense.

“Every team in the country has one loss at the end except for the champion,” Pankratz said. “So I couldn’t be more proud of them. (They) will go down as one of our best ever.”

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