The 2nd-ranked Michigan field hockey team knew it had its work cut out for itself in the National Championship game.
The Wolverines (15-2 overall, 6-0 Big Ten) faced off against the top-ranked University of North Carolina (19-1, 9-1 ACC), one of the best teams in the history of NCAA field hockey. The Tar Heels were chasing their third consecutive national championship and secured it after beating Michigan in overtime, 4-3.
Carolina has maintained a 37-0 record at home — where the championship game was played — since 2018, and has only lost one game in the past three years.
Regardless, the Wolverines left their hearts out on the field and did what they’ve done well all season long: persevere.
Unlike the Tar Heels in the ACC, Michigan didn’t play a fall season, and were forced to play in the spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Wolverines’ didn’t let that get the best of them, going on to earn an undefeated conference record and winning the Big Ten Tournament. One of the most impressive parts of the team was the season-long performance of junior goalkeeper Anna Spieker, who allowed only seven goals all season until the national championship game.
Michigan is considered a blue-chip field hockey program, qualifying for the NCAA tournament eight times since 2010 under the leadership of coach Marcia Pankratz, but the team hadn’t made it to the championship game since 2001.
“I just couldn’t be more proud of how hard (the team) worked all season,” Pankratz said after the overtime loss. “(They) learned a lot and grew and came together as a team and respected each other.”
The Wolverines drew first blood in the first period as redshirt junior forward Kate Burney was able to score off the foot of an opposing player. Carolina was quick to follow-up, scoring 33 seconds later.
The Tar Heels scored again in the second period off of a corner and built up a 3-1 lead in third. Where other teams would have staggered, Michigan rose up to the challenge. The team dug their heels in and engineered a comeback against the defending champs.
After trimming the deficit to one, sophomore forward Sarah Pyrtek reacted to a wild ball off of a Carolina stick and scored, tying the game at three and forcing overtime.
“They’re opportunistic. We knew it was going to be a hard-fought battle,” Carolina coach Karen Shelton said. “Credit to them for not folding when they got down two goals. They almost got better (the more they trailed).”
The Wolverines had a strong opportunity to end the game in overtime but missed the game-ending goal by a few feet. In response to the threat, the Tar Heels pushed back immediately and were able to draw a penalty corner. Carolina controlled the ball and fired a backhanded shot that found its way to the back of the goal — ending Michigan’s championship hopes in devastating fashion.
Still, the future is bright for the Wolverines. When a normal fall season gets underway in a few months, Michigan expects to be right back to competing for a national championship.
“We didn’t give up and we kept fighting. And I mean, what more can you ask for?” senior fullback Halle O’Neill said. “We are such a young team. And thankfully, we get to get back at it in three months.”
Michigan fought valiantly but couldn’t walk away with a national championship on Sunday. But after going toe-to-toe with the nation’s best, they sent a clear message to the field hockey world: the Wolverines will be back.