If defense really wins championships, then, well, Michigan’s field-hockey team is about to hoist a national-championship trophy.
The Wolverines (21-2), ranked No. 3 in the nation, enter Friday’s NCAA semifinals on an unbelievable roll — particularly on defense, with a nation-best 0.61 goals-against average, .860 save percentage and 17 shutouts. Six of those shutouts have come in the last six games, including five in postseason play. They’ve posted shutouts in 15 of their last 18 games.
“It’s been outstanding,” coach Marcia Pankratz said this week. “Right down the middle, with Katie (Trombetta), a first-team All-American. She’s a smart field general. And Sam Swenson in the goal cage, one of the best goalkeepers in the country. Casie (Ammerman) and Esther (de Leijer) right down the middle, experienced and smart. We’ve got some serious speed on our side backs, and with that speed, we’re able to stay with any fast forward in the country and defend them beautifully.”
Something will have to give in Friday’s semifinal against No. 9 Maryland (15-6), tied for 15th in the country, scoring 2.86 goals per game.
The teams are familiar with each other, as Big Ten counterparts. They played once this season, Sept. 29 in Ann Arbor, where the third-ranked Wolverines survived, 3-2, in double-overtime.
Friday’s winner advances to Sunday’s championship game, against either top-ranked Connecticut (21-0) or No. 4 North Carolina (18-4).
“We know them pretty well,” Pankratz said of Maryland, which won five NCAA championships from 2005-11. “They’re very tournament-savvy, well-coached.”
Between Maryland, Connecticut (2013-14) and North Carolina (2007 and 2009), those teams have won nine of the last 12 national championships.
Michigan last won it all in 2001, the first UM women’s team to win a national championship. Softball joined the exclusive club in 2005.
Coaches hate to draw parallels, but Pankratz at least obliged when asked.
“It’s a whole other generation of kid, but they’re athletic, both teams are athletic. There’s great leadership in both teams, great speed,” Pankratz said. “They get along great. All of those are key components that make for a successful run.
“Both have been super-fun to coach. It’s been easy on us. They make you look like a genius when they get out there and play.”
Pankratz said she first had an inkling this would be another special team before it even played a game. It started over the summer, when she saw how the team had a passion for training.
A lot of that starts with the senior leadership, and there’s a lot on this team. Five seniors start, and four of them — Swenson, Trombetta, Ammerman and de Leijer — typically play a full 70 minutes.
They’re vocal on the field, and the glue off the field, where the team chemistry is impressive. And make no mistake, that matters.
“I think it’s probably the deciding factor,” said Pankratz, in her 18th year as Michigan’s head coach, over two stints. “Every team is training hard, every team has got tactics and athletes, but the team dynamics that stems from the leadership is critical.
“They have high expectations for their teammates, they treat everyone with great respect. It’s like a family. They’re caring, they take care of their teammates, and they can deliver.”
Field hockey semifinals
Who: Maryland vs. Michigan
When: 4:45 p.m. Friday, Trager Stadium, Louisville, Ky.
Records: No. 9 Maryland 15-6, No. 3 Michigan 21-2
At stake: Winner advances to NCAA championship game, at 2 p.m. Sunday in Louisville against either Connecticut or North Carolina