WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Welcome Week may have not yet begun, but for nearly half of the Michigan field hockey team Saturday served as their official introduction to collegiate competition.
And it was a rude awakening.
The Wolverines (0-2) faced off against No. 2 North Carolina (2-0) and No. 13 Wake Forest (1-1) this weekend as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge in Winston-Salem, falling in those games 5-1 and 2-1, respectively.
The season opener on Saturday pitted Michigan against the Tar Heels, and for a roster comprised mainly of underclassmen it proved anything but welcoming.
North Carolina dominated possession in the first half and applied almost constant offensive pressure, leading to six penalty corners for the Tar Heels. One of those penalty corners led to Michigan conceding its first goal of the 2012 campaign.
When the Wolverines did gain position, it was very brief – UNC’s tough defensive unit proved very effective at quickly disrupting Michigan counterattacks. By the end of the half, the Tar Heels had registered 12 shots while the Wolverines had failed to manage any, and North Carolina led 2-0.
Midway through the half, Michigan coach Marcia Pankratz yelled out to her players to play tougher — much of their difficulty keeping possession came from the Tar Heels’ physical style of play.
“Some of our younger players aren’t used to that real physicality,” Pankratz said. “I think it was a surprise.”
Possession in the second half was slightly more even. The Wolverines were able to generate some offense, and redshirt sophomore midfielder Samantha Gray managed to score Michigan’s lone goal of the day off of a penalty corner. The Wolverines also allowed fewer shots and gave up fewer penalty corners during the second half.
“The team just adjusted to ‘Wow, this is another level of hockey from when I was a high school player,’ ” Pankratz said.
Ultimately, though, Michigan was unable to mount a comeback, and two deflection goals later the final tally stood at 5-1.
The Wolverines’ inexperience certainly played a factor in the loss. Seven out of the 15 Michigan players that took the field on Saturday were freshmen. In contrast, North Carolina boasts a rather experienced roster.
“They’ve got 18 returning players and some players coming off the Olympic National Team training with the Olympic squad,” Pankratz said. “Their quickness of play is extraordinary, and we’re working towards that in practice, but to see it in a real game is a little bit different.”
The Tar Heels, as their No. 2 ranking suggests, are one of the best teams in the country, and the Wolverines knew that a season opener against North Carolina on the road would be a difficult test. Junior forward Rachael Mack viewed the tough matchup as a valuable learning experience.
“It was definitely nice to get the season rolling,” Mack said. “We’ve obviously got some things to work on, but all in all we played a good game and it’s brought up things we need to work on which we’ll take into the season and into next week.”
With its season opener against the Tar Heels behind it, Michigan finished off the ACC/Big Ten Challenge with a game against Wake Forest.
While the Wolverines struggled throughout the UNC game, Sunday’s matchup with the Demon Deacons was a much more even affair.
In the final seconds of the first half, junior forward Michelle Roberts scored on an opportunity generated by a penalty corner to take a 1-0 lead at halftime. Michigan faltered in the second, however, allowing 14 shots and two goals to fall 2-1.
The Wolverines’ next matchup is at home against Delaware on Saturday, when they hope to rebound from their 0-2 start.
While 0-2 may not be how Pankratz would have liked to start the season, she still seems optimistic about her young team.
“To have so many freshmen out there at the same time I thought we did a great job,” she said.