EVANSTON — Having played a grueling regular season during
which any secret weapons were forced out into the open, the Big Ten
Tournament is a time when teams are forced to rely purely on heart
and talent.

Field Hockey
The Wolverines celebrate their 3-2 win over Iowa and Big Ten Tournament victory. (Joel Friedman/Daily)

All seven teams had played each other by the time they reached
the Leonard B. Thomas Sports Complex this weekend, so there were no
dark horses to be revealed. In the end, top-seeded Michigan
prevailed, using lessons learned from its sole conference loss at
Iowa City to defeat the second-seeded Hawkeyes 3-2 in the
tournament final.

“There weren’t too many surprises out there,”
Iowa coach Tracey Griesbaum said. “It was just a matter of
who would capitalize on them. In the first game of the year there
might be surprises, but at this point we have played them once and
seen them play other times. It’s just a matter of
execution.”

Iowa capitalized early, taking a lead when Debbie Birrell put
one past Michigan goalkeeper Beth Riley. Hawkeyes forward Sarah
Dawson worked the ball deep into the circle and shot. Birrell found
the rebound amongst heavy traffic in front of the Michigan goal and
tipped it past Riley.

Though her team fell behind early, Riley had confidence that her
defense would help her keep the game within reach.

“I’ve got the best defender in the Big Ten (junior
Lori Hillman) right in front of me,” Riley said of Hillman,
the tournament’s most valuable player. “I’m
pretty confident with her, and everyone else on the team, that
it’s not even going to get back to me.”

The teams continued to battle in the midfield and Michigan
caught a break when it was awarded a penalty corner 27 minutes into
the match. After sophomore Kara Lentz put the ball into play,
Jessica Blake took a shot from the left side, but Iowa goalkeeper
Barb Weinberg turned it aside. Lentz was waiting in the corner and
tried again to put it in, but Weinberg again got a piece of it.
This time, however, Wolverines’ forward Katie Morris was
waiting on the doorstep and lifted the ball into the top right
corner of the net — her third goal of the weekend —
tying the game at one.

Just before halftime, Michigan took its first lead when
sophomore Mary Fox tapped in another rebound. Lentz again took a
shot from the corner, but after the ball made it past Weinberg, it
clipped the post and bounced out to a wide-open Fox.

While Michigan’s defense continued to hold strong in the
early parts of the second half, the offense became stagnant. Once
again, a penalty corner was the spark Michigan needed, and Blake
bounced a shot off of an Iowa defender and into the net.

Though Iowa managed to pull within one just five minutes later,
the Michigan defense took control of the match, refusing to
collapse as it did earlier in the year against Iowa.

After trailing 3-0 at halftime of their regular-season meeting,
the Hawkeyes stormed back for a 4-3 overtime win. Michigan coach
Marcia Pankratz was confident that there would be no repeat of the
collapse at Iowa City.

“I don’t know about the players, but me, I was
comfortable and confident,” Pankratz said. “(My mind)
didn’t go back to (Iowa City) at all. We did a little bit
better at time management of the clock. We made some changes and
learned some things from that loss at Iowa City. So it was nice to
see that the team grew and learned from previous games.”

Hillman felt the pressure that comes with a one-goal lead, but
had faith in herself and her teammates.

“It’s nerve-wracking,” Hillman said.
“But I have confidence in all of my teammates. I know that
they are going to do all that they can to keep the ball up
there.”

The win gave all but two of the Wolverines their first
conference tournament victory. Only fifth-year seniors Kate Dillon
and Molly Maloney were around for Michigan’s last win in
2000. Pankratz was thrilled for her departing seniors who had
fallen short several seasons in a row.

“It is a hard tournament,” Pankratz said. “It
has kind of escaped us for the last four seasons, so I am really
happy for (the departing seniors).”

With the win, the Wolverines earned an automatic berth in the
NCAA Tournament. Michigan will now wait for tomorrow’s
announcement of regional sites and first-round matchups, hoping to
host one of four regional tournaments.

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