With a decently large sample size, the No. 7 Michigan field hockey team seems to have cemented a narrative: The Wolverines dominate on the field but struggle to find harmony as a team.
Riddled with turnovers and missed opportunities, Michigan (3-3 overall, 0-1 Big Ten) succumbed to that narrative as it fell to No. 6 Penn State (6-1, 1-0), 2-1. It faced a familiar problem that plagued it all season — it failed to capitalize on penalty corners.
As a corner opportunity facilitated the Nittany Lions’ first goal, the Wolverines faced the opposite problem. Michigan had 10 penalty corners and a disparity of 23-3 shot attempts, but could not capitalize on any of them.
At one point in the game, the Wolverines had five corner shots recorded in ten minutes and nothing to show for it. With plentiful opportunities, Michigan struggled to gel as a unit.
“We come off as losers even though we outshot them,” fifth-year goalkeeper Anna Spieker said. “It feels a little bit odd right now, getting into the groove is a good way of putting it.”
It was an odd feeling because the Wolverines left with some positive outcomes.
After a tough first period with Penn State leading by one goal, junior midfielder Lora Clarke opened the score for the Wolverines halfway through the second. Clarke’s goal wasn’t enough to sway the momentum for long when Penn State returned the favor to put the Nittany Lions in the lead and, ultimately, win them the game.
The first half exemplified a tug-of-war for momentum, showing how the teams were relatively evenly matched. Both Michigan and the Nittany Lions scored a goal early, both fighting off continued pressure from the opposing side.
However, the semblance of equal-strength teams dissolved at the start of the second half. The Wolverines maintained possession for the majority of the game, keeping a firm handle on the ball and spending almost the entirety of the late game without letting it into their half.
“They barely made it into our 50,” Spieker said. “We’re hopeful for what’s to come, we outplayed a strong team early on in the season.”
Despite its advantage in possession, Michigan failed to convert. That proved detrimental as it lost its first conference matchup.
For Clarke and Spieker, there are clear points for improvement. With a clear divide between upperclassmen and underclassmen, this time early in the season is when players can build on-field chemistry — something the Wolverines are evidently struggling to do.
Failure to convert penalty corners is a hard blow to their confidence, but despite that, Michigan remains optimistic.
“The past two games we’ve lost, we’ve definitely outplayed our opponents,” Clarke said. “We have complete faith that we will capitalize on goal scoring soon because we pick up on things quickly.”
Growing pains are something every team is familiar with. This year, the process is proving to be more of a learning curve than expected. But, they’ve also figured it out earlier in the season. Friday proved they still need to handle adversity consistently.
The Wolverines’ strategy of taking things game-by-game is not a foreign concept, but the Wolverines’ confidence in their ability to grow is unfettered. On Friday, it was clear that their problem was not in facing a strong opponent, but rather how to handle their shortcomings.
Michigan remains confident that these shortcomings are a quick fix.
“We have a very versatile team,” Clarke said. “It’s the beginning of the season, so we still have a lot of time to go.”
Even with a loss to open Big Ten play, the game-by-game approach may prove fruitful later in the season. First, though, the Wolverines need to find a way to capitalize on penalty opportunities. Until they figure that out, their struggles will continue.