Better late than never.
That old saying may best describe the surprise emergence of senior midfielder Sarah Wilhite as a potent offensive weapon for the No. 16 Michigan field hockey team.
The unheralded senior has been the Wolverines’ best player this season, tallying three goals and four assists in last weekend’s 4-3 and 10-0 victories over Ball State and St. Louis in Muncie, Ind. Wilhite now has more points in this season’s first six games — a team-high 15 — than in her previous three years combined.
Just six days after No. 1 Maryland handily defeated the Wolverines (3-3) at home, Michigan coach Nancy Cox saw marked improvements in her squad’s offense, particularly in the Saturday afternoon thrashing of St. Louis.
“Our ball distribution through the backfield and the midfield has gotten significantly better,” Cox said. “And our forwards, over the course of the past few weeks, have gotten considerably stronger over the ball.”
The Wolverines’ fluid efficiency is thanks in large part to Wilhite, who leads the team with nine assists. She credited her recent prolific play to a position change. After playing midfielder in high school, the Hummelstown, Pa., native spent most of her collegiate career in the backfield. She began practicing at the midfielder position again this summer, and the transition has been seamless.
Ball State (1-4) took a sudden lead Friday thanks to two goals just 46 seconds apart towards the end of the first half. The Cardinals’ momentum fizzled just over nine minutes into the second frame, when Wilhite fed sophomore midfielder Meredith Way at the top of the circle off a penalty-corner opportunity. Way promptly tied the game with her team-high fifth goal of the season, a quick shot to the low far-side corner.
The two reconnected 17 minutes later. As Way flicked the ball in the air from the top of the circle, Wilhite deflected it past Cardinals junior goalie Tiffany Shifflet to seal the win.
Way, also a midfielder, has displayed a similarly unexpected scoring touch this season. After tallying two goals on nine shots on goal in 23 games last season, she recorded nine shots on goal over just two games this weekend. Way’s newfound aggressiveness is paying dividends for a Wolverine offense that is looking to replace the 72 points notched last season by four now-graduated players.
“I think that both Sarah and Meredith have drastically improved over the course of the past few weeks,” Cox said. “Meredith is reading presses better and opposing defenses better. Sarah’s ball distribution, whether she’s in the backfield or in the midfield, is getting better each weekend.”
There was far less suspense Saturday afternoon against St. Louis (1-4). Senior forward Stephanie Hoyer scored the first of her two goals less than 10 minutes into the contest, redirecting a pass across the circle from Wilhite.
The rout began to take shape shortly after halftime. An explosive second half saw seven unassisted Michigan goals on 20 shots. When the fireworks ended, seven Wolverines, four of them substitutes, had tallied at least one goal. With Michigan dominating ball possession, redshirt junior Paige Pickett and redshirt freshman Christi Barwick were rarely tested in net, making just one save apiece.
The Wolverines outshot the Cardinals and Billikens by a 52-13 combined margin on the weekend and had a stark 18-6 advantage in penalty corners. Michigan’s ability to impose its will on two overmatched opponents showed Cox that the Wolverines are playing with a “greater confidence.”
And the confidence accumulated from these two victories can only help against No. 5 Connecticut in this upcoming weekend’s Husky Invitational.