Michigan set to face toughest weekend of the year

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By Nathaniel Clark, Daily Sportswriter
Published August 28, 2014

The Michigan field hockey team and coach Marcia Pankratz are not ones to shy away from difficulty.

Indeed, the 17th-ranked Wolverines will get more than their fair share this weekend at the Big Ten/ACC challenge. Michigan will face No. 11 North Carolina in Chapel Hill on Saturday. The Tar Heels are fresh off a Final Four appearance and 16 letterwinners return this year.

As if that were not enough, the Wolverines will square off against No. 2 Wake Forest on Sunday. The Demon Deacons are returning 17 letterwinners and are 15-3 all time against Michigan.

“Yeah, it’s tough, but we made it that way by design,” Pankratz said. “It sets a good tone for the rest of the season.”

Historically, the first match of the year has produced mixed results at best for Michigan. The Wolverines are 19-21-1 all time in season debuts. They fell to then-No. 14 Massachusetts 3-2 in 2013.

In preparation for this year’s opener and the rest of the upcoming season, Michigan has spent the last two weeks training in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Pankratz has been stressing that each opponent is different but all warrant a full effort to prepare. So far, she is pleased with what she sees.

“We have great unity and team dynamics,” Pankratz said. “This team is hungry to win.”

Even with the graduation of 2013 Big Ten Athlete of the Year and lead scorer Rachel Mack, the Wolverines have plenty of talent to go around. Fifth-year senior Leslie Smith, along with juniors Shannon Scavelli and Lauren Thomas, were selected to the Big Ten Players to Watch list.

Smith has already contributed mightily to Michigan’s cause. She led the Wolverines in assists in 2012 and 2013 as a midfielder/back and is one away from entering Michigan’s top-10 all time.

Scavelli netted a career-high six goals last season as a forward, including a game-tying goal against Iowa on Oct. 5. She also received the distinction of being a Big Ten Distinguished scholar this July.

As for Thomas, she has started in every game since coming to Michigan two years ago. She was named All-Big Ten each of the last two seasons and made the All-West Region second team both years as well.

“We have a lot of versatility, which is a huge plus,” Pankratz said.

In addition to the returning players, the Wolverines will welcome four freshmen: Morgan Malone and Katie Trombetta from the United States, Sam Swenson from the United Kingdom and Veerle Lubbers from the Netherlands. Pankratz believes that all four are capable of making a big impact right away.

Together, Malone and Trombetta boast four NFHCA All-America honors and seven all-state citations. Swenson was goalkeeper for the English Junior National Team, where she earned her first international cap in a match with Ireland.

Lubbers spent the last 13 years playing for the Upward Dames field hockey club with two years at the A1 competition level, the highest for club play in the Netherlands.

Even though Michigan will likely face its most daunting task at the Big Ten/ACC Challenge this weekend, a rough road still lies ahead for the Wolverines. They will face seven more ranked opponents after this weekend, including No. 1 Maryland on September 26 at the newly renovated Ocker Field.

“You have to learn from every game,” Pankratz said. “That is how we are going to reach our goal of winning the Big Ten Championship and making it back to the NCAA Tournament.”