For the Michigan field hockey team, it’s been a storybook season.
A rough first few games turned into a 15-game winning streak, a regular season title and a berth in the Big Ten Tournament final. And with a 1-0 win over Penn State to secure the championship, the Wolverines proved that this story has a happy ending.
Things didn’t start out so well for Michigan. The usually-dominant defense struggled to keep the ball out of its own territory, as the Nittany Lions outshot the Wolverines 7-1 in the first half. But senior goalkeeper Sam Swenson, who was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, made several impressive saves to keep the game scoreless.
“I saw our senior captain leader,” Michigan coach Marcia Pankratz said of Swenson. “In the biggest game she came up with the biggest saves.”
Neither team converted the opportunities they had in the first half, giving the Wolverines an opportunity to reset. During the break, the team huddled as senior midfielder Katie Trombetta mapped out plays on a whiteboard.
“When we got to the second half, we made an adjustment and weathered some emotion from Penn State,” Pankratz said. “(We) played a little bit bigger ball at the back.”
The adjustment paid off, as Michigan was able to more consistently keep possession, taking nine shots to the Nittany Lions’ eight.
It was a full team effort. On one play, Swenson made a save on a Penn State shot but fell, leaving the goal open. The Nittany Lions got a rebound, but freshman midfielder Kayla Reed was there to block the shot and buy Swenson some time.
“(You’ve) gotta take every shot as it comes, play minute for minute,” Swenson said. “My defense was really great in front of me.”
With just over five minutes left in the game, Michigan got a free hit and took the ball up the field. While fifth-year senior forward Carly Bennett’s shot was saved, fifth-year senior midfielder Esther de Leijer was set up perfectly to score off the rebound.
In a match against Louisville the last week of the regular season, de Leijer broke her hand, but she didn’t let that stop her. She played with a brace on her hand, pushing through the soreness.
“There was never a doubt (that she was going to play) because it’s the Big Ten Tournament,” Pankratz said. “Esther is super tough. Nothing was gonna keep her out of that game.”
Scoring the first goal took some of the pressure off. Still, the Wolverines knew they couldn’t let up.
“We just knew that we had to keep it clean in the backfield,” de Leijer said, “and no matter what, play really hard until the end.”
But no good story is complete without a little drama of the end. In this game, that came in the form of back-to-back corners from the Nittany Lions just as time expired.
Penn State’s last shot looked like it had a chance to go in on a rebound, but the attempt was blocked and Michigan had its victory, becoming Big Ten Tournament champions for the first time since 2010. The win ensures the Wolverines an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament, where they could contend for an even bigger title.
“I’m just really happy for our players,” Pankratz said. “They’ve worked incredibly hard to get Michigan back to being champions.”