It’s easy to see why Michigan field hockey coach Marcia Pankratz believes that this weekend is the most important yet for her team.
This afternoon, the second-ranked Wolverines (5-0 Big Ten, 14-1 overall) will take their 13-game winning streak into State College, where a victory over No. 6 Penn State (3-1, 13-2) would give them sole possession of the regular-season Big Ten title and the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament.
Less than 24 hours later on the same field, Michigan will have to face No. 1 Old Dominion (6-0 Colonial Athletic Association, 14-2), which just seized the top ranking in the country last weekend by toppling then-No. 1 Maryland.
“Michigan State was our biggest weekend (prior to this one),” Pankratz said. “But this is a double weekend where we have back-to-back games, and we’re playing on the road – so that’s not easy. It will be a great challenge for us, and we’re looking forward to it.”
The hallmark of any championship team is the ability to win games against the toughest competition. Pankratz knows playing against the best will help prepare Michigan for its postseason run.
“That’s why we schedule Old Dominion late in the year,” Pankratz said. “We’re trying to prepare for the Big Ten Tournament and the national tournament. And certainly, to win Big Tens on the road against Penn State would be well deserving. So, it’s a great challenge, and we’re definitely up for it.”
Defeating the Nittany Lions would be particularly satisfying since they beat the Wolverines last year at the end of the regular season, preventing Michigan from winning a share of the Big Ten title with Ohio State and Michigan State.
Last year’s loss “is definitely on our minds” junior Kate Dillon said. “We’re really gunning for Penn State right now. They are a good team; they’re always a good team. Playing at their field, we’re looking at a tough weekend in front of us.”
Michigan has faced four ranked opponents so far this season, and this weekend adds two more to that total. With such sound experience in marquee contests, Dillon knows what Michigan must do to be successful against Penn State and Old Dominion.
“I really think it comes down to the tactics,” Dillon said. “Our coaches are really good about preparing us, tactically – scouting the other team and bringing us videotape which we watch.”
“Then we work on specifics in practice of what they’re going to do and what we’re going to need to bring to beat their game plan. I think that’s really what wins the game.”
Should Michigan complete the weekend sweep, it would likely garner the No. 1 ranking in the country, the first time in school history for the Wolverines. While being the best in the land is not an immediate concern for the Wolverines, the achievement would certainly be gratifying.
“We don’t look at the rankings too much because they don’t really mean that much until the end of the season,” Dillon said. “But it would be nice to be at the top for once.”