It’s becoming a rare sight to see the ball near the Wolverines’ goal. In Sunday’s Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal win against Ohio State, the Michigan field hockey team held the Buckeyes to a mere four shots and one penalty corner en route to a 3-0 win.

Halle O’Neill has a lot to do with that. The freshman defender from Hummelstown, Pa., didn’t expect to have much of a role at the beginning of the season.

After coming off the bench in the season-opening match against North Carolina, O’Neill has started every match since, proving to be an indispensable member of the team. It’s a common sight to see her sweeping down the field, taking the ball away and keeping it from the other team. Her efforts have contributed to a program record 11 shutouts.

“She’s had an incredible year,” said Michigan coach Marcia Pankratz. “Her ability to … jump right in at the beginning has really been part of the success of our team. She’s fast and has got great skills and makes really great decisions.”

Against a Buckeye team that was aggressive on both sides of the ball, the Wolverines had to make the most of their chances. Ohio State played physically, but despite her inexperience, O’Neill was unfazed.

“I would just try to step in front of them so they couldn’t even touch the ball, but that would upset them a lot, and then it got very pushy,” O’Neill said. “I think we handled it as a team very well. We stayed composed.”

In the end, the penalty corners made all the difference. All three of Michigan’s goals came off penalty corners, including one scored by O’Neill when a shot from senior midfielder Katie Trombetta deflected to her.

Ohio State’s best scoring chance also came on a penalty corner. The shot by Buckeye senior defender Maartje Bongers was a good one, but O’Neill was there to block it and direct it back down the field, where the Wolverines took another shot.

O’Neill is new to playing such a pronounced role as the main blocker on penalty corners. That job used to belong to fifth-year senior midfielder Esther de Leijer. But when she got injured, it was O’Neill’s turn.

“With Esther injured, I knew I had to … step into her shoes,” O’Neill said. “She’s been coaching me all week, one-on-one, and she helped a lot.”

For O’Neill, the guidance of many of the team’s seniors has aided her improvement.

“It’s unbelievable,” she said. “The seniors have been very welcoming of us freshmen and just the chemistry has been really great.”

This year, Michigan won its eighth regular-season Big Ten title under Pankratz, but its first since 2011. After starting the season ranked No. 11 in the coaches’ poll, the Wolverines are now ranked third in the nation. A big part of that is the young players – sophomore midfielder Guadalupe Fernandez Lacort, sophomore forward Meg Dowthwaite and O’Neill.

“I’m proud of … how hard we’ve worked all season,” Pankratz said. “They’ve worked really hard for it and I’m really happy for them, that they were able to become champions.”

The Wolverines’ ultimate goal lies ahead of them, and O’Neill is confident.

“You have to go in expecting to win and expecting to succeed,” she said. “We can only go up from here and hopefully win a couple more titles.”

And if the title comes, O’Neill and the rest of the defense will have been an instrumental part.

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