The Michigan field hockey team’s spring 2021 campaign didn’t get off without a hitch.
The Wolverines’ first two scheduled games were wiped out due to COVID-19 protocols. They dropped two of their first five actual games as well — a respectable start, but certainly not at the level of a national championship contender.
But over its next 13 games, that’s exactly what Michigan proved itself to be. It won its final seven regular-season games, breezed through the Big Ten Tournament to claim its second conference title in the last four years and knocked off Bucknell and Louisville in the NCAA Tournament to advance to the national title game.
The battle between the Wolverines and top-ranked North Carolina lived up to expectations, with Michigan coming back from a 3-1 third-quarter deficit to send the game to overtime. But it was the Tar Heels who defended their 2018 and 2019 national titles after earning a dramatic, 4-3 win on Erin Matson’s sudden-death goal.
It’s hard to rate the Wolverines’ 15-3 season as anything but a roaring success — it was just their third national title game appearance in program history. But after having been to the precipice, and with almost all of last spring’s squad returning this season coupled with a strong recruiting class, they won’t be willing to settle for second-best this fall.
The backbone of last season’s Michigan team was on defense. By almost every measure, the Wolverines were the strongest defensive team in the Big Ten and one of the strongest in the entire country.
Michigan allowed just 0.67 goals per game and shut out 10 of its 18 opponents. Teams managed just 3.94 shots per game against the Wolverines, and 7.9 in total.
It’s no surprise, then, that two leaders of that unit — midfielder Halle O’Neill and goalkeeper Anna Spieker — were named NFHCA First Team and Second Team All-Americans, respectively.
O’Neill, who played 1,134 of a possible 1,154 minutes last season, was an all-around force with three goals and five assists, while Spieker’s 56 stops on 67 shots faced gave her the third-best save percentage in the nation. Both O’Neill, a redshirt senior this year, and Spieker, a senior, are returning and will also serve as co-captains, meaning the Wolverines should once again be as stout as anyone anywhere.
While Clare Brush, who played the second-most minutes on last year’s team, is graduated, Michigan brings back Rosie Hope and Anouk Veen, freshmen who started a combined 33 of 36 games on defense. Veen, in addition to her defensive duties at centerback, scored four goals to tie for second on the team.
The Wolverines’ midfield presence includes senior Kathryn Peterson, a third-team All-American who led the team with six assists last spring while scoring four goals as well. Katie Anderson, another senior, will also play a big role in the midfield. Anderson scored three goals with three assists, and also scored the winning goal in the semifinal shootout against Louisville.
Michigan, which ranked third in the Big Ten in scoring at two goals per game, didn’t have one big-time scoring threat like Northwestern’s Bente Baekers or North Carolina’s Matson. Only one Wolverine ranked in the Big Ten’s top 10 in goals or points. That player is junior forward Sarah Pyrtek, who started all 18 games and scored a team-high seven goals and chipped in three assists.
Instead, the Wolverines’ strength was their balance. 12 different players accounted for their 36 total goals, including frequent starting forwards Tina D’Anjolell and Kate Burney each with three tallies. Lora Clarke, a freshman last season, added two goals in her 15 games started while then-junior Sofia Southam scored two as well.
Other returning players to watch include midfielders Pilar Ontiveros and Maya Gompper, each of whom appeared in every single game and registered 1,160 minutes between them. Junior midfielder Nina Apoola was a member of England’s U-18 national team. Forward Kate McLaughlin, who appeared in 11 games, was Max Field Hockey’s West/Midwest Region Player of the Year coming out of high school in 2019.
While Michigan returns 92 percent of its goal-scoring from last season and 22 letterwinners in all, per MGoBlue, 22nd-year head coach Marcia Pankratz also brought a strong freshman class to Ann Arbor. Four of the five — midfielders Abby Tamer and Alana Richardson, goalie Caylie McMahon and defender Emmy Tran — were ranked among Max Field Hockey’s top 100 recruits, and Tamer and McMahon were in the Top 10.
Normally, the No. 2 team in the NFHCA Preseason Top 25 returning almost all of its key players would be a resounding favorite in its own conference. Not so with Michigan and the Big Ten.
The league might be the strongest field hockey conference in the country this season, with seven of its nine teams ranked in the poll including No. 3 Iowa, No. 4 Northwestern and No. 9 Maryland. The Wolverines will have its hands full with all three of those teams, not to mention Rutgers, Penn State and Ohio State as well.
The challenges don’t stop there, as Michigan opens its season against — who else — North Carolina. The Wolverines traditionally begin their season against the Tar Heels as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, but this year’s battle will, for the first time, be a national championship rematch.
Michigan will also face ranked opponents Wake Forest and Louisville in non-conference play, meaning that of the Wolverines’ 16 regular-season games, nine will come against ranked teams, including seven of the last nine.
Many of the teams Michigan is set to face this season feature big-time scorers like North Carolina’s Erin Matson, who led the country with 29 goals in 20 games last spring. Northwestern has Bente Baekers, the Big Ten’s third-leading scorer, while Penn State features a 12-goal scorer in Sophia Gladieux and last season’s conference offensive player of the year, Mackenzie Allessie, who transferred from Ohio State. That’s a difference from the relatively egalitarian Wolverines, whose biggest strength lies in preventing teams from scoring.
A conference title is far from a guarantee. But Michigan’s defensive prowess and overall balance make it perhaps the top contender at the moment. Even a second or third-place finish in the Big Ten would still make it a threat for a deep NCAA Tournament run.
Just a few months ago, with the tournament finals being held in Chapel Hill, the Wolverines had to watch as the Tar Heels celebrated a third straight national championship on their home field. This season’s Final Four will take place, though, at Ocker Field in Ann Arbor.
If Michigan and North Carolina were to meet again with everything on the line, and the Wolverines came out this time as the ones rejoicing at home, it’d be hard to write a better script for their first national title since 2001.
Schedule (times ET)
- August 27 (2 p.m.) vs. No. 1 North Carolina (Iowa City, Iowa)
- August 29 (2 p.m.) vs. No. 11 Wake Forest (Iowa City, Iowa)
- September 5 (1 p.m.) at Central Michigan
- September 10 (7 p.m.) vs. Ball State
- September 18 (1 p.m.) vs. Albany (Ithaca, N.Y.)
- September 19 (11 a.m.) at Cornell (ESPN+)
- September 24 (6 p.m.) vs. Michigan State
- September 26 (1 p.m.) vs. Kent State
- October 3 (noon) at No. 22 Ohio State
- October 8 (6 p.m.) vs. No. 4 Northwestern
- October 10 (noon) vs. No. 5 Louisville
- October 15 (2 p.m.) at No. 3 Iowa (BTN)
- October 17 (noon) at Indiana
- October 22 (4:30 p.m.) vs. No. 15 Rutgers
- October 24 (1 p.m.) vs. No. 9 Maryland
- October 29 (6:30 p.m.) at No. 16 Penn State
- November 4-7: Big Ten Tournament (Piscataway, N.J.)
- November 12-14: NCAA Tournament First and Second Round (campus sites)
- November 19-21: NCAA Tournament Final Four (Ann Arbor)