This was supposed to be a season of destiny for the Michigan field hockey team.
Coming off a season in which it swept the Big Ten and earned the national runner-up, the Wolverines entered the 2021 season expecting greatness. That expectation was made even greater due to the circumstances, with the season coming 20 years after Michigan’s lone national championship and the NCAA finals being hosted in Ann Arbor.
The season seemed almost perfectly designed to have a fairytale ending. Instead, it ended more like a nightmare. After a string of late-season losses, the Wolverines walked away from the 2021 season short of their lofty goals.
Sunday’s game against Harvard ultimately proved the final straw. Despite finishing with a lead in shots, and putting the pressure hard on the Crimson in the fourth quarter, it was ultimately Harvard that prevailed with the shootout victory.
“It’s not easy to lose a game like this,” Michigan coach Marcia Pankratz said. “We just couldn’t get it done.”
It didn’t start out this way. Early and decisive wins against North Carolina — which has won the last three national championships — and then top-15 Wake Forest cemented the Wolverines at the top of the NFHCA Coaches Poll.
Even more impressive were the omissions in those games; three of Michigan’s top players, including senior midfielder Sofia Southam, were away on national duty. Once they returned to the team, it was all engines go.
In their first five games after the return of the national team players, the Wolverines outscored their opponents 33-4. This, in a sport in which three goals is considered an offensive flurry. Though later games saw much tighter results, including a double overtime against Northwestern, Michigan continued to win games, and entered a showdown against No. 2 Iowa as the top-ranked team with a 11-0 record.
Against the Hawkeyes, cracks started to form in the Wolverines’ play that would become crevices as the season moved on: Michigan dominating possession and peppering the opponent with shots, but not enough finding the cage; the Wolverines earning a litany of corner opportunities, but not converting.
And, ultimately, Michigan’s opponents finding a brief window of opportunity to put the game away.
“The kids are resilient, we had our chances, and we just couldn’t convert them.” Pankratz said.
Of their five losses, only one Wolverine loss — their 1-0 Big Ten Tournament final loss against Rutgers — was put away in the first half. The others saw Michigan lead or keep the game tied late, but ultimately have a win slip through its fingers, either in the fourth quarter, overtime or shootout.
“I hope everyone remembers how this feels,” fifth year back Halle O’Neill said. “I hope they come back next season with a vengeance.”
Save for O’Neill and fifth-year back Emma Tamer, the Wolverines plan to return the rest of their starting lineup, in large part to the NCAA’s COVID-19 eligibility relief.
Given that, it’s unlikely the bitter end of this year’s season will be forgotten any time soon.
“It’s been nip-and-tuck between this season’s ending and last’s,” Pankratz said. “We’re gonna enter next season with the same high expectations we’ve had all this year.”
Daily sports writer David Woelkers can be reached at email@example.com, and on Twitter at @dawjr98