Northwestern field hockey doesn’t want to hear about the Big Ten Tournament or the prospect of playing in the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats don’t even want to hear about the fact that they’re ranked No. 9 in the nation.
They really don’t want to hear about much other than No. 16 Iowa, their next opponent.
“We won’t look past the next game,” head coach Tracey Fuchs said. “We’re only taking it one game at a time.”
The one-game-at-a-time strategy has definitely worked: The ‘Cats are 10-4 (4-1 B1G) on the season and have beaten some of the nation’s best teams along the way. They sit in a three-way tie for first in the Big Ten with Penn State and Maryland – two teams that the ‘Cats beat earlier in the season. After the team lost 11 seniors (including six starters) in the offseason, no one could have blamed NU for taking a step back in 2016.
Instead, the Wildcats have done the opposite. After opening the season ranked No. 16, big wins over teams like Maryland, Penn State and Boston College have vaulted the ‘Cats to No. 9 – with a stop as high as No. 6 along the way.
What makes this team so good? After a solid but not spectacular 13-8 record last year, the players say that as much as anything else, it’s the team’s improved mindset.
“We’re focusing a lot on having fun this year,” senior midfielder Isabel Flens said. “We can sometimes be really hard on ourselves, and I think when we remind ourselves that we’re here to have fun and to enjoy every practice and every game it kind of gets people going.”
Senior midfielder Dom Masters attributed some of the team’s success to its closeness.
“Losing eleven very important seniors last year, there was a big gap to fill, and we’ve really focused on making sure the team chemistry is good,” she said.
The players may credit intangibles, but the “tangibles” have been quite impressive as well: They’ve scored more goals than any other team in conference play, and senior goalie Lindsay von der Luft is second in the Big Ten in save percentage.
The high-profile offense can score in bunches – they’ve piled up 53 goals on the season, second only to Penn State in the Big Ten. The back half of the field is just as strong, allowing only 22 goals so far, good for fourth in the Big Ten.
Flens is third in the Big Ten in goals with 12, but the ‘Cats have spread the scoring around the team – 11 different players have scored at least once this year.
“It’s coming from different places, which takes teams by surprise a little bit,” Masters said of the team’s scoring success.
Flens added that the amount of scorers on the team makes them tougher to defend since opponents can’t focus on a star player – and while she might be right that there isn’t a single player for other Big Ten schools to try and stop, the team certainly has star power. For three weeks in a row (Sep. 20 to Oct. 4), the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week award was won by three different NU players.
“It comes back to the fact that we have so many people playing well right now that can get goals when we need them to and we can all find each other,” said Flens, who won the award on Oct. 4. “I guess I was just the lucky one who was in the right spot this weekend. Next week, you never know.”
With a strong preseason ranking, the team looked poised for success, but their dominance has still come as a pleasant surprise for some.
“We lost six starters from last year so we were reloading,” Fuchs said. “I think I’m surprised with how consistent we’ve been.”
Fuchs isn’t wrong: The squad’s consistency has been remarkable. They’ve never allowed more than three goals, and they had an eight-game stretch where they scored under five goals just twice (and never under three).
However, NU has dropped its last two games, 2-1 to Indiana and 2-0 to No. 8 Louisville. The ‘Cats have five regular season games (including two conference games) left before the three-round Big Ten tournament, after which they hope to qualify to the NCAA tournament.
With a balanced attack, strong defense and model of consistency, NU will look to regain its dominance as the regular season ends, using the one-game-a-time approach that has made the ‘Cats so successful this season.
“I think in previous years we were looking toward the final prize,” said Fuchs. “You’ve got to come out each and every day to get a win in the Big Ten.”