At first glance, the 10th-ranked team in the nation beating the first-ranked team doesn’t seem like much of an upset.
But when you consider just who the Michigan field hockey team lost to graduation, its 1-0 victory over then-No. 1 North Carolina is much more impressive.
Michigan (4-1), now ranked eighth in the nation, graduated not only both of last season’s leading goal scorers in All-American center back Lauren Thomas and forward Shannon Scavelli, but also its entire backfield — a trio that had played together through the seasons and represented a wealth of experience.
“It’s always hard losing your seniors,” said Michigan coach Marcia Pankratz. “We had a first team All-American that we lost. The biggest thing was our backfield had three players that played together all the time and were a really solid unit, and we lost all of them at the same time. So there were a lot of shoes to fill in the backfield experience-wise.”
Despite the shortage of returning players, though, Michigan has clearly coped well: In addition to the win over the Tar Heels, the Wolverines tallied a 2-1 victory over then-No. 11 Stanford, as well.
Just how has Michigan gotten off to such a scorching start?
The answer lies in the development of the freshman class. It’s cliche, but it’s hard to argue. And there may be no better example than Bree Bednarski.
The freshman forward has serious speed — the type that allows her to reach balls even her teammates think are headed out of bounds.
But to Pankratz, Bednarski’s ability to transition quickly to the collegiate level has been an equally impressive aspect of her game.
It’s a trait that — perhaps unlike Bednarski’s speed — is shared by all six freshmen on the team.
“We did throw (the freshmen) in the deep end of the pool pretty quickly but so far, so good,” Pankratz said. “They’re really rising to the challenge, training super hard and learning every day, so we’ve been really pleased.”
Added junior midfielder Katie Trombetta: “When we get on the field, (the underclassmen) are really performing and coming into their own, so you forget that they’re freshmen or sophomores. I rely on someone like Bree, who’s a freshman, just as much as I rely on (redshirt junior forward) Carly (Bennett).”
There’s a clear lack of a “class division” with this year’s team, which Trombetta says is evidence of an evolution in team culture over the past couple years.
“Where we are now (from) my freshman year, the dynamics have changed and that’s why we’ve done so much better since then,” Trombetta said. “Just the level of community and equalness, not separating by class, really being a real team that just plays together and works hard together.”
With this year’s team, the upperclassmen say they don’t think of the freshmen or sophomores in terms of on-field experience — they’re simply “younger friends,” as Trombetta puts it, who are eager to learn the ropes.
It may sound idealized, but the Wolverines say everyone simply gets along, and that’s what has allowed Michigan’s freshmen to adapt so quickly and successfully.
With the Wolverines meshed together as a more cohesive unit, they’re able to compete with the nation’s best despite their youth.
“A couple of our teammates from last year have come back and watched (us play),” Trombetta said. “The biggest thing they say is that there’s no one superstar, and we really do play as one big team that passes. Everyone is getting subbed in, everyone’s getting cycled in, everyone knows what their job is. It’s very much one big team that plays together the entire time.”