As the late afternoon sun fell away behind Phyllis Ocker field, a shadow of doubt hung over the No. 14 Michigan field hockey team.
Billed as an elite team before the season, the Wolverines had yet to earn their stripes. They lacked a signature win, and had already lost to teams considerably less strong than their opponent, No. 1 Iowa.
However, the 60 minutes of field hockey Michigan played against the top-ranked Hawkeyes demonstrated that they can compete with, and potentially be among, the best of the best in the NCAA. But potential didn’t translate to a win as Iowa (9-0 overall, 1-0 Big Ten) prevailed over the Wolverines (5-4, 0-2), 2-0, in a hard fought, low scoring game.
“It was a close matchup most of the match,” Michigan coach Marcia Pankratz said. “Just a couple of mistakes here and there in the circles that made the difference.”
Both teams started the game with incredible energy, keen to not let their opponents catch them sleeping. It was this energy that led to a stalemate for much of the first quarter, only interrupted by a quick Iowa counter attack. Midfielder Esme Gibson’s give-and-go and her ensuing shot caught Michigan’s defense off guard, but redshirt sophomore goalie Kaylie McMahon recorded her first of five saves on the night to keep Gibson and the Hawkeyes off the score sheet.
The rest of the first quarter was much of the same, with no team dominating possession and only a few chances. Yet, neither Michigan nor Iowa lost confidence. They seemingly fed off the high level of competition.
“The shots will fall eventually,” senior midfielder Erin Reilly said. “Just keep trying, I think is the biggest thing.”
The second quarter was defined less by what happened and more by what did not. With under seven minutes left in the quarter, freshman forward Esmée de Willigen picked off a pass between two Hawkeye defenders right in front of goal. Her shot flew over the crossbar, a costly miss against a talented Iowa defense. Unfortunately for the Wolverines, they wouldn’t get another chance like that again.
Michigan received the first penalty corner of the game with two minutes until halftime, yet the Hawkeyes’ goalie saved what proved to be the Wolverines’ first, and last, shot on goal of the half. As halftime beckoned, both teams continued seeking control over the game to no avail.
“It was just one of those toe to toe matchups between two heavyweights,” Pankratz said.
Three minutes into the third quarter, Iowa succeeded where the Wolverines had failed. Stealing the ball at the top of the circle, Miranda Jackson buried her shot to finally put the Hawkeyes up 1-0. The mistake was crucial.
After the goal, Michigan developed a renewed sense of urgency, putting Iowa on its back foot for most of the final two quarters. McMahon fended off two Iowa shots to end the third quarter, and the Wolverines put their foot on the gas in the fourth, garnering nine penalty corners in only one quarter. For the rest of the game, Michigan was the more dangerous of the two teams. Yet they couldn’t close the match out, despite ample opportunity.
“Unfortunately the shots didn’t fall,” Reilly said.
With five minutes remaining, Alex Wesneski sealed the deal for the Hawkeyes, scoring her third goal of the season to put Iowa up 2-0 and all but end the Wolverines’ chances. Iowa is an elite team, and playing them closely illustrated Michigan’s chances at being elite as well.
“Yes we did lose, but it doesn’t feel like a loss,” Reilly said. “I think that we have stepped it up from last week and I feel like we’re just building every single practice.”
Reilly and the Wolverines can take solace in the fact that they recorded more shots and eight more penalty corners than the top-ranked Hawkeyes.
However, if Michigan is going to build themselves up to the team they were projected to be, they must be better in critical moments. In order to beat teams like Iowa, the Wolverines will need to execute offensively with only a handful of chances, instead of making the same defensive errors they did on Friday.
The road to a Big Ten championship and postseason success will pass through the Hawkeyes and teams like them. Michigan has reason to believe it can make it there, and the loss showed just how good it will have to be to do so.
But first it has to get there.