For 90 minutes, Northwestern hung with the No. 4 team in the country, holding the Indiana Hoosiers to just three shots on goal in regulation time in Sunday’s Big Ten Conference Quarterfinal match.
But in the 91st minute, it all came apart. 59 seconds into the extra session, Indiana’s Austin Panchot found himself with the ball on the right flank and delivered a cross into the box with his right foot. That’s where Trevor Swartz stood, ready to cock his head and send the ball careening into the left side of the goal, where Northwestern netminder Francisco Tomasino could only stand and watch, immobilized, as the ball went past to give Indiana a 1-0 win. And with that, Indiana was on to the conference semifinals, and Northwestern was literally headed home, its season essentially over.
It’s tough to place the blame on Tomasino, who made three saves in regulation to keep the match scoreless, including one off of a redirection by a Northwestern defender just over a minute before time expired. The Wildcat netminder simply didn’t get much help offensively. The far-and-away best chance for Northwestern came a few minutes into the second half when Mike Roberge slid into a shot in the box and sent it dovetailing just wide of the near post. Ty Seager had two shots, but Northwestern never got closer than Roberge did in the 54th.
The loss drops Northwestern’s record to 6-11-1, a step behind last season’s 7-9-2. The six wins are the fewest in a season since the team failed to win a single match until the final game in the 2001 season, finishing the campaign 1-13-3. A perennial NCAA Tournament team for years under Tim Lenahan, Northwestern has now all but officially missed the Big Dance two years in a row; since appearing in its first-ever NCAA Tournament in 2004, Northwestern missed out on the event just twice in the next ten years.
As has so often been the case this campaign, the Wildcats simply failed to create enough chances. Northwestern managed just six shots on Sunday – and none of them were on target. The Wildcats totaled just 171 shots this season, eighth in the nine-team Big Ten. And that may even be a bit misleading because ninth-place Rutgers has tallied just seven fewer shots and has played two fewer games. The Wildcats’ 15 goals in 18 games is tied for last in the league, also with Rutgers.
The ‘Cats, meanwhile, surrendered just under 16 shots per game, which is a big reason why Tomasino ranks second in the conference with 4.20 saves per game. Tomasino’s inability to keep the ball out of the net, however, means his save percentage is just sixth in the league and his goals against average eighth. Robbie White appeared in just two matches and finished the season with the same number of shutouts (one) as Tomasino tallied in 15 caps.
There were some bright spots this season, however. Brandon Medina showed flashes of what might have been in an injury-plagued college career by scoring four goals, including one game-tying goal late in a match against Rutgers and two game-winning goals.
Perhaps more impressive than Medina’s campaign was that of Mike Roberge, who scored only two goals despite a team-high 38 shots (Medina attempted only nine). But he saved his scoring for the most critical situations. Northwestern went to double overtime in September against a Michigan team that had failed to win a match in its first eight attempts. It seemed destined to become NU’s second draw in three games, but in stepped Roberge to give the ‘Cats the victory. Then, in October, Northwestern headed to last year’s home of Toyota Park for its annual matchup with Notre Dame, then ranked the No. 2 team in the nation. Shannon Seymour scored in the first half to improbably give the ‘Cats a lead, but Notre Dame responded almost immediately to equalize. But despite their efforts, the Irish could not cash in again. Enter Mike Roberge. Taking an inbounds feed from Elo Ozumba and tucking it near post, handing Northwestern a truly marquee victory.
No Northwestern player was selected to the postseason All-Big Ten Teams, even though Medina and fellow seniors Nate Dearth and Jeff Hopson were nominated in the preseason. But though the seniors didn’t earn any accolades, a freshman did: behind a game-winning goal and an overall solid season of defensive midfield play, Mattias Tomasino was named to the All-Conference Freshman team, perhaps signaling something positive for the future.
The ‘Cats will have to hope the younger Tomasino continues to play well into next year, because this already-thin roster will get significantly slimmer when the seniors leave. The defensive unit immediately gets weaker as both centerbacks, Dearth and Willis Griffith, depart, as does wingback Drew Rosenberg, who played well down the left flank as the season progressed. The Wildcats will also have to find new sources of offense, as Medina, Roberge and Hopson, who combined for nine of Northwestern’s fifteen goals, all move on, as does reserve forward Getenet Tuji, who had been a legitimate source of offense in the past.
Ozumba and his three goals will return, giving Northwestern a legitimate, though very inconsistent, scoring threat, but where will the help come from? Perhaps from Camden Buescher and Riley Kelliher, who combined for five assists – Kelliher especially looked increasingly impactful as the season progressed. And of course, don’t count out Lenahan and whatever recruits he can bring in – few freshmen had sizable impacts this season, but their contributions are almost always question marks. It seems to be a few seasons away, but maybe eventually this program can get back to where it once was – winning the conference in 2011, reaching the third round of the NCAA Tourney multiple times in the 2000s, and producing high-end talent that would go on to play professionally. Ya gotta believe.