In a sport traditionally dominated by East Coast private
schools, the emergence of the Big Ten as one of the premier field
hockey conferences in the nation is a bit of an anomaly. Against
all odds, excellent coaching and recruiting created the Big Ten
conference’s seven deep and talented teams, bringing the
league to the national forefront. Each program has developed a
polished product this season, producing a previously unseen level
of parity at the top, and setting the stage for an epic race for
the Big Ten title.

As always, No. 7 Michigan will be a contender. And after playing
a grueling nonconference schedule, the Wolverines will be primed
for war. Only two weeks ago Michigan coach Marcia Pankratz was
alarmed when her team allowed three unanswered goals in a loss to
Old Dominion after tiring late in the game. But after a solid
fortnight of practices and a complete performance against
Northeastern on Sunday, Pankratz is ready to see the payoff during
conference play.

“I think we’re getting better,” Pankratz said.
“I think the Northeastern game was a big breakthrough —
we played hard for the entire 70 minutes. I hope (the Old Dominion
game) was a stepping stone to us getting better.”

On paper, the preseason favorite for the Big Ten championship is
No. 4 Michigan State, which started the year atop the National
Coaches’ Poll. The Spartans return seven of their 11
starters, including former Big Ten scoring champion Annebet
Beerman. Michigan State’s new regulars are far from unproven
commodities — sophomore Jennifer Beeuwkes was inches away
from sending last year’s NCAA regional final matchup against
Michigan into overtime, and senior Veerle Goudswaard scored
Michigan State’s lone goal in that 2-1 loss.

In that regional final game, the Spartans were well-matched with
the Wolverines, and Michigan State coach Michele Madison claimed
that both of Michigan’s goals should have been disallowed.
Senior Adrienne Hortillosa scored from the edge of the circle, and
senior Jessica Blake was close to violating high-stick rules with
her tip-in goal. Like every other sport, the field hockey rivalry
between the Wolverines and Spartans is intense, and the
Wolverines’ controversial goals in that game might have added
fuel to the Spartan’s fire.

“I think Michigan State is out to get Michigan in any
sport,” Pankratz said. “That’s just the beauty of
the rivalry.”

Before worrying about the Spartans, the Wolverines will open
conference play on Friday at Indiana. The Hoosiers’ field
hockey program has existed for just three years, but coach Amy
Robertson’s skill for recruiting has helped to build a
legitimate contender.

Heading into their matchup with Michigan, the No. 17 Hoosiers
have compiled a 6-2 record.

“Playing down there is always harder than playing at
home,” Pankratz said. “It will be a good test for us,
and a good opener.”

After the opener, there is hardly a letdown in Michigan’s
schedule — four of the seven Big Ten teams are currently
ranked in the top 20. Iowa is ranked lowest of the Big Ten teams,
but after playing the toughest nonconference schedule of the seven,
it could easily work its way up the ranks.

“Iowa is always strong,” Pankratz said. “They
are very well coached and they have some nice players there. Every
game is a real battle against Iowa. We’re just going to try
and not worry about them until we have to play against
them.”

When looking at their schedule, Pankratz and the Wolverines
neglect to focus on a specific game because every game brings the
possibility of defeat.

Michigan is fortunate to host Northwestern, Michigan State and
Ohio State, but faces imposing road games at Indiana, Iowa and Penn
State.

“The Big Ten is a blockbuster conference,” Pankratz
said. “We’re just going to go through it and do the
best we can, game by game.”

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