Zero wins, ten losses.
Entering Saturday’s contest against No. 4 Northwestern, the No. 12 Michigan women’s lacrosse team had never beaten the Wildcats. And as the clock hit zero, the losing streak continued.
The Wolverines (9-2 overall, 1-1 Big Ten) entered their tilt against Northwestern (8-2, 2-0) riding a hot start in the form of a 9-1 record. But Michigan could not sustain its momentum, falling 12-9 to Northwestern. While the Wolverines kept it close throughout, the Wildcats’ offense was ultimately too overpowering.
“The approach today was to get out and pressure them,” Michigan coach Hannah Nielsen said. “Northwestern typically scores upwards of 16 goals a game, so to hold them to 12 is something that I’m really happy with.”
Even in the loss, Michigan particularly focused on its defense—and that emphasis was evident throughout the game.
Coming into Saturday’s tilt, the Wolverines ranked third in the nation in goals-against average, allowing only 7.3 per game. And at the start of the first period, they showed just why their defense was so successful.
They didn’t give Northwestern any easy opportunities. In just the first period alone, Michigan forced four turnovers. By the end of the game, the Wildcats had coughed up the ball 14 times compared to the Wolverines’ five. In particular, sophomore Maddie Burns, a staple of the defensive core, caused three turnovers of her own. Michigan also picked up 14 ground balls over the course of the contest, more than double Northwestern’s total of six.
“They’re rockstars,” Nielsen said. “The unit and the cohesiveness we have back there is just at an all-time high.”
However, the Wolverines’ relentless method of defending their cage came at a price.
As Michigan aggressively limited the Wildcats’ scoring opportunities, its tactics eventually landed them in foul trouble. Michigan afforded three extra-man situations to Northwestern, and they capitalized on each one. The costly fouls were instrumental in allowing the Wildcats to climb out to a 3-0 lead early in the second period.
“I thought the fouls today … were called pretty tight,” Nielsen said. “When you play tough like that, you’re gonna get fouls called against you.”
But Nielsen was adamant that these fouls were not due to sloppy play on the defensive end: “I don’t think there (were) any times where we made a mistake and fouled.”
Nielsen projecting blame onto the officiating for the Wolverines’ undisciplined play emphasized just how explosive and overpowering Northwestern’s offense was. Even in a nearly mistake-free defensive outing, Michigan still found itself consistently trailing and fouling the Wildcats.
Once the Wolverines found themselves in the 3-0 hole, they began to battle back, adding more pressure on the offensive end of the field. Goals by seniors Kaitlyn Mead and Erin Garvey brought Michigan within one before Northwestern tallied a goal to go up 4-2.
And that was the theme of the game; Michigan played Northwestern in a tight affair all afternoon, but it never was able to get over the hump and establish a lead. In the third period, a slick spin by Mead temporarily invigorated the Wolverines’ offense, which bombarded the Wildcats with two unanswered goals to tie the game at seven.
But that was the closest Michigan would get.
Northwestern’s pressuring offense battled back, pushing the game further out of Michigan’s reach until it finally pulled away during the fourth period, going up 11-8 with less than 10 minutes to go.
“It was a tough game,” Nielsen said. “Northwestern is a tough team, a physical team, they’re super well-coached.”
But even while playing a superior opponent, the Wolverines never stopped competing— though on Saturday, that wasn’t enough.
“They didn’t back down and that was what we told them going in,” Nielsen said. “Go in and play Michigan Lacrosse, which is hard and fast and tough and gritty and physical.”