Last November, Maryland lost a 2-1 heartbreaker to Northwestern in the Big Ten Field Hockey Tournament semifinals. Then, just two weeks later, history repeated itself, as the Terps fell 2-1 to the Wildcats yet again – this time in the form of a Final Four elimination out of the nationwide NCAA Tournament.
This Thursday, No. 7 Maryland looks to finally get revenge, as they travel to take on No. 1 Northwestern in Evanston, Illinois.
Keeper Annabel Skubisz has arguably been the best player for the Wildcats this season, serving as a defensive anchor in goal. Last season, the Texas native placed herself in the history books by totaling the most saves (111) by a Northwestern goalkeeper since 2008 and playing more minutes than any other goalie in the nation. While she hasn’t eclipsed those records this season, Skubisz still leads the country in goals against average (.488) and Big Ten shutouts per game (.688; 11 total shutouts), as well as recently being named the NFHCA Division 1 Defensive Player of the Week (10/25).
“[Skubisz] is tremendous, she’s an international level goalie,” praised Terps’ head coach Missy Meharg. “She’s tall and covers lots of space…we’ll try to make her deal with the unexpected.”
Four main weapons lead the charge for the Wildcats offensively, the first being graduate student Peyton Halsey. A former NFHCA All-West Second Team member, Halsey leads the team in goals scored (10), and ranks 20th in the NCAA in points per game (1.81) and third in the Big Ten in game-winning goals (6). After scoring the final goal in the 80th minute of last Sunday’s penalty shootout victory over No. 3 Rutgers, it’s clear that Halsey’s proven herself as a clutch player – and Northwestern’s go-to option late in games.
Sophomore Maja Zivojnovic and freshman Olivia Bent-Cole are the second and third leading goal scorers on the roster after Halsey, and both have been constant problems for opposing defenses.
After an injury that kept her out for most of last season, Zivojnovic has quickly made a name for herself throughout her second season. This year, the Netherlands native ranks within the nationwide top-20 in goals per game (.75) and is third in the Big Ten for total shots (52). Furthermore, Zivojnovic has recorded impressive multiple-goal games this season – including a three-goal hat trick against Princeton and a two-goal effort against Michigan State – making her dangerous offensively as an anytime goal threat.
Bent-Cole is yet another player that can score in bursts for the Wildcats. In her first year playing at the collegiate level, the USA TODAY HHSA Field Hockey Player of the Year has already recorded eight goals on the season, as well as receiving Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors (9/25) and ranking eighth in the conference in total shots on goal (31).
Finally, while she doesn’t stuff the stat sheet with shots or goals, graduate student Alia Marshall is still essential to this Northwestern squad. The Delaware native serves as the main facilitator for the Wildcats, setting her teammates up for constant looks in and around the shooting circle. Marshall leads both her team and the Big Ten in assists (15), also ranking second in the entire NCAA in assists per game (.94).
On the flip side, the Terps moved up two spots in the NFHCA national rankings after yet another perfect 2-0 week – delivering two strong wins over No. 8 Iowa and Indiana to extend their win streak to seven.
A constant theme this season for Maryland is early game success, as the Terps have allowed only two first-quarter goals through 17 games and outscored teams 17-2 in the first fifteen minutes. Furthermore, 12 of those 17 goals happened in the first six minutes of each game and the team is 11-1 when leading at halftime.
Graduate student Sammy Popper is a big reason for this, as the Princeton transfer has scored four goals in the Terps’ last five games, with three of the four coming before halftime.
“She’s a beautiful field hockey player,” said Meharg. “I recruited her so heavily out of high school and club and was obviously very disappointed when she decided to compete at Princeton. But I’m sure she’s happy now having both opportunities [at Princeton and Maryland]. She loves the pressure of scoring goals under the highest competition.”
In addition to Popper, other underclassmen have emerged as primetime players – the first being Maci Bradford. Though just a freshman, Bradford is second on the team in goals scored with eight and leads the Terps (alongside Popper) with four game-winning goals, the most recent one seen in a second-chance winner against Indiana this past Sunday.
Sophomore Hannah Boss is on a tear as of late, playing the best field hockey of her collegiate career. In last weekend’s slate, the Netherlands native had notched two goals on the season. Then, on Friday, Boss scored a career-best two goals in a win against No. 8 Iowa, doubling her season total in just one match.
“The main thing is just treating it like any other day, not letting those nerves in,” said Popper on advice to the younger players heading into big-stake games. “They’ve done a really good job managing that already…just remembering that every minute is a new minute.”
Finally, it’s hard to ignore freshman sensation Alyssa Klebasko, who’s blocked nearly every shot that’s headed her way. The Terps’ starting keeper remains undefeated in goal, leading the country in both goalie win-loss percentage (1.000) and save percentage (.881). After recently receiving a second consecutive Big Ten Freshman of the Week honor, it’s clear that Klebasko is putting both the conference and the nation on notice.
Having won seven straight matches, Maryland is certainly peaking at the right time. If the Terps pull out a win this Thursday, they’ll collect a share of the Big Ten regular season title.
It’s the biggest match of the season, and coach Meharg and her squad are ready to take center stage.
“It doesn’t matter how we play, it’s about getting the job done.”