Men's soccer did it first. Women's soccer followed just hours later. Saturday the Maryland field hockey team will become the third Terrapins squad to play it first conference game in the Big Ten. Like the men's soccer team, field hockey opens their season on the road. Like the women's soccer team, they will face a ranked opponent in their conference opener. In this instance the opponent is the 15th ranked Northwestern Wildcats who bring a record of 4-3 into the game that is the conference opener for both squads.
Wildcats on the turf
In 2013 the Wildcats finished with an overall record of 15-5 and, at 5-1 in conference play, tied for the Big Ten Championship with Penn State. They were particularly tough in Evanston ringing up a perfect 7-0 record on their home field. After losing their season opener, Northwestern ran off eight straight wins including (wait for it Terp fans) a 3-2 upset over then ninth ranked Duke in Durham. Each of their next three losses came on the road to ranked teams. Their season ended with a loss in the B1G Tournament with a loss to Ohio State.
Maryland fans shouldn't dismissively brush aside Northwestern's superficially unimpressive 4-3 record to open the season. The Wildcats have faced a challenging early schedule that included road losses at third ranked and defending national champion UConn and at tenth ranked Wake Forest. Their other loss came at home to 17th ranked Louisville ending a 17 game home winning streak that spanned parts of four seasons. They have a neutral field win over 20th ranked James Madison and picked up a 5-1 win at Miami (Ohio) who Maryland beat 3-1 in College Park - the only common opponent between the schools thus far this season.
Though their leading scorer from 2013 graduated, Northwestern returns three players who accounted for over 40 percent of the teams 49 goals. Averaging three goals per game, the Wildcats appear to have plenty of firepower. However, they ran wild over Dartmouth scoring nine times and that, coupled with the five goal outburst at Miami, lodges two-thirds of their scoring in just two of their seven games. The Cats have out shot their opponents 97-73 and hold a 41-32 edge in penalty corners.
Players to watch
Isabel Flens, #23, sophomore, midfielder. Flens leads the Wildcats in goals and points with 6 and 26 respectively. She started all 20 games in her freshman season and has already equaled her total goals and surpassed her assist totals from last year.
Caroline Troncelliti, #1, junior, midfielder. Troncelliti is currently tied for second in goals scored for Northwestern with five. The junior is another returning 20 game starter for the Wildcats and scored six goals with 4 assists as a sophomore.
Dominique Masters, #3, sophomore, midfielder. Masters, from Canterbury in the (still) United Kingdom, is Northwestern's leading returning scorer from their 2013 campaign. Another freshman who started all 20 games, Masters scored eight goals and added four assists in her first season with the Cats. With four goals and two assists in the first seven games, she is on pace to easily surpass those totals as a sophomore.
Two other players worth mentioning were both on the preseason Players to Watch list - junior midfielders Charlotte Martin and Lisa McCarthy. Although they have only one goal collectively, they have each picked up five assists in the young season.
Saturday will mark the 18th meeting all time between the two programs with the Terps holding a dominating 13-4 edge in the series. It has been over two decades since Northwestern's last win which came in 1988. The Terrapins won the most recent meeting picking up a 3-0 result in 2011 - a game in which then freshmen and now seniors Maxine Fluharty and Katie Gerzabek each scored a goal.
An added bonus
As my formerly secret identity of FHFAN demonstrates, I have a bit of a field hockey bias. So I made a special effort to sit down with head coach Missy Meharg prior to the team's departure. Here's that conversation:
TC: Does the move to the Big Ten feel more real now that you will be playing an actual conference game?
Meharg: For the last year or more it's been so real and I think Kevin Anderson and Ryan Bowles who headed the transition from the ACC to the Big Ten did a fantastic job. All of us have had an opportunity to spend a lot of time in our scheduling in terms of logistics - our travel arrangements, the hotels we're staying in that sort of thing. The business offices have done a good job.
One place it's a little different from the ACC is getting into league play. Historically, at least for field hockey, you kind of build up more of the top ten teams. So that's a little different. The Big Ten also has very good teams, highly ranked teams but the schedule is built a little bit differently.
In terms of excitement and readiness and the players' attitudes, we feel very prepared and excited. We're excited to travel, too. Maryland doesn't travel a lot in terms of flights. We spend a lot of hours on buses going to Boston College and Winston Salem and now we're looking at taking an hour and fifteen minute flight. The players seem to like to fly more. So we'll see how it goes.
TC: How well do you know Tracy Fuchs as a coach?
Meharg: I know Tracy very well. I played with her on the national team. I coached her in the Olympic Games in 1996. I've coached with her internationally and obviously I've coached with her collegiately. She's a tremendous tactical coach. She is really into the international game. So it's very much like Karen Shelton, or Beth Anders or Pam Bustin. This is a coach who seriously studies the game twelve months out of the year and not only do I have tremendous respect for her as a coach but she's also a very good friend. So in that regard it'll be a fun contest and a fun couple of years together.
TC: What are you looking for from Northwestern in terms of strategy and style of play?
Meharg: From what I've seen, they look to me to be very safe in their tactical defense. They have a lot of defensive structure so it seems that they will be very heavy in their double cover in their backfield. Tracy's going to know a lot of our attacking players. She coached as an assistant with the Junior World Cup last year so she really knows Maxine (Fluharty), and Katie Gerzabek, and Anna (Dessoye) and she's coached against Germany so she knows Sarah (Sprink) very well.
So she'll have a lot of information. I do believe they'll fall away a little bit against us but she has the savvy to be able to push up and drop back as Maryland does.
What I see about the game is to continue in game seven the work in progress of Maryland. Fortunately, we get to play a very good team here in week four.
TC: Have you done anything special to prepare for this game or are you just focusing on the progress for Maryland as the weeks go on?
Meharg: Now we're really just so much of a fun work in progress that I think our Temple match in the second half may have been one of the best levels of hockey we've played in terms of ball pattern and our energy together. We're going to work off of that. So I would have to say we're focusing on fine tuning what we're doing and playing more varieties of players and combinations of players. I'd love to think we can have the same statistics on our attack penalty corners. Clearly if I was Northwestern I'd be really looking to try to put pressure on that straight shot so that can give up opportunities to do different things.
TC: Speaking of doing some different things and playing more varieties of combinations of players, are you back at full strength health wise?
Meharg: We are at full strength with everybody. Rachel (Frusher) is back playing. Lein (Holsboer) is back playing. Everybody seems to be really good.
TC: Does the game have a different feel because it's a conference game from other times that you've played Northwestern?
Meharg: You'd have to ask me that question after the season with all of these teams. I really haven't experienced it. In a year I'll probably say something very different than I might say right now. So I just don't know what I don't know.
In my coaching style, a game is a series of trying to make a lot of organization out of chaos and having a good attitude doing it. The concept of the team was that the minute we found out - which was the day that we unfortunately lost to Princeton in the semifinal two years ago and they of course won the National Championship - that day was the day that I found out that we were going (to the B1G). And right from that day, I said I'm just going to stay with my philosophy which is get used to being a little bit uncomfortable, make it part of your practice and be flexible and innovative and find change a really fun challenge.
TC: Any special preparation for the first true road game?
Meharg: These players come from all over the world. I don't really prepare like that. We're just going to prepare to be ready to take another step in our game. We'll prepare them with a couple of things to look at that we feel they should be aware of tactically and, outside of that, travel and water and weather these are things in life you can't control. The officials you can't control. The weather you can't control. The things you can control are your attitude, your performance and your work rate. So we'll just focus on those.