Following last season’s heartbreaking overtime loss in the National Championship Game to North Carolina, the No. 2 Michigan field hockey team entered this weekend’s Big Ten/ACC Challenge with a chip on its shoulder.
This time, the matchup against the Tarheels would end differently.
Strong defense and precise goalkeeping put the Wolverines in the driver’s seat for much of its 3-2 victory over No. 1 North Carolina on Friday. That same aggressive defense helped Michigan blank No. 11 Wake Forest 2-0 on Sunday.
Against the Tarheels, familiar foes felt each other out as the game began, and it seemed like both teams waited for an opportunity to strike. Michigan found one first when freshman midfielder Alana Richardson chipped in a rebound from senior forward Tina D’Anjolell shortly before the first period expired.
D’Anjolell added her own tally around ten minutes later, and she notched a goal and an assist against the Demon Deacons on Sunday. However, it wasn’t just her ability to score that helped her team capture difficult wins.
“She’s very fast, and she’s a senior so she’s very experienced,” Michigan coach Marcia Pankratz said. “… She set the tone on defense because she can close them down, which helps our defense create turnovers.”
Much of D’Anjolell’s success came from overwhelming opponents with quick passes and unpredictable footwork. Each time a defender shifted their positioning and prepared to stymy a Michigan threat, she — and the rest of the team — changed on the fly to create shots. Time after time, opposing defenders came up with no answer.
This game plan originated largely from Michigan’s energy. The Wolverines used speed and aggression to control the game, frustrating opposing forwards.
“Our team embraces that type of play,” Pankratz said. “… We know if we get the other team’s head down, that they’re not going to be able to perform the tactics that they want because we put them under so much pressure.”
Early on, the defense was able to keep up with opposing threats and get the ball out of their zone. But, by the third and fourth quarters, North Carolina and Wake Forest maintained possession for longer, stretching out Michigan’s defenders and looking for seams in tight coverage. The Wolverines started falling a step behind attackers and struggled to make clean exits from their 25-yard zone.
Michigan had to lean on the depth of its defenders to overcome this, shifting to a more reserved style against later possessions. Junior midfielder Nina Apoola and sophomore back Serena Brimacombe both used their positioning to slash the angles that opposing forwards could choose.
This overall defensive structure complemented transitions back to the Wolverines’ normal, aggressive play. As the team collapsed into tighter zones, both the Tarheels’ and Demon Deacons’ explosive offenses came up empty-handed on chance after chance, and the Wolverines started playing tighter coverage as the opponents tired.
This wasn’t just the Wolverines showing off their offseason training; this showed targeted growth of their defensive capabilities. They scored the same amount of goals this time against North Carolina as they did last season, but they slashed their goals-against in half.
“… Even if the ball does get through the forward line, I know I can trust my midfielders enough for them to step up,” D’Anjolell said. “And then we can counterattack and score the goals that we need.”
Perhaps the greatest indicator of this was Michigan’s containment of two-time NFHCA National Player of the Year Erin Matson. The forward scored two goals in last year’s championship game — including the game winner. This time around, the defense stopped her from putting a shot on net.
For the opponents who managed to squeeze off shots, senior goalkeeper Anna Spieker stood like a brick wall, challenging forwards as they came into her zone all weekend. This brazen strategy forced many high shots that soared over the net.
Michigan’s performance wasn’t all perfection, as the Tarheels were able to score goals by pinning the Wolverines twice and pouncing on minor positioning mistakes, including a close call as time expired against North Carolina.
These proved to be the exception, not the rule. Momentum swayed back toward the Wolverines after each goal, and a loss seemed surprisingly out of the question against two of the best teams in the country.
For Michigan, this weekend wasn’t about proving it can handle the nation’s best, nor was it about simply establishing a good start to the season. It was about proving that the Wolverines were a new team on both sides of the field.
And Michigan’s performance shouted that message.