After a regular season filled with ups and downs, No. 9 Maryland field hockey earned the fourth seed in the Big Ten tournament and will take on No. 4 Iowa for the third time this season on Wednesday.
“I’m so excited to be out here,” head coach Missy Meharg said. “How fantastic, after such a very interesting year for the women and certainly the staff and be in the position for all the teams to be able to compete in a postseason tournament. I really applaud the Big Ten, they’ve done an incredible job.”
Maryland will make its second trip to Iowa City, Iowa this weekend, as the two teams met for a pair of matches earlier this month. While the Terps and Hawkeyes split the matchups, it was Maryland who came out on top in the one that counted for the Big Ten standings. The victory helped elevate the Terps to the four-seed in the tournament, while the Hawkeyes own the fifth.
The Terps are 17-4-1 all-time against the Hawkeyes, and Iowa’s 3-0 win on April 4 was the first the program earned against Maryland since 1994.
Both teams look to fight deep into the postseason, and it all starts Wednesday at 2:30 p.m. This match, along with all eight in the tournament, will be broadcasted on the Big Ten Network.
What happened last time
The first weekend in April pitted a thrilling 120 minutes between two nationally ranked teams in Iowa City.
On April 2, the Terps put on a clinic in their 1-0 defeat of the Hawkeyes. Defender Maura Verleg had the lone goal in the match off a penalty corner in the third quarter. While forward Bibi Donraadt’s corner was perfectly executed, it resulted in only one of two shots on goal in the whole game for Maryland.
Goalkeeper Noelle Frost was sensational in the win, making five saves in clutch situations. Frost charged out of goal to make a point-blank stop on Iowa forward Alex Wesneski, as seen from her so many times throughout the season. The win extended Maryland’s winning streak to four, but the excitement would be short-lived.
Just two days later, Iowa responded with a shutout of its own, taking down the Terps, 3-0. The Terps’ defense, led by Frost, was overwhelmed the whole match, surrendering seven penalty corners and 12 shots, seven of which were on goal.
Defender Anthe Nijziel scored the first goal, one that would be the difference-maker, off a penalty corner in the third quarter. Iowa continued to dominate, as forward Maddy Murphy piled on two goals in the fourth quarter.
“We didn’t play our best hockey against them in either of the matches, to be honest,” Meharg said. “We’ve come a long way since then, so I’m just looking forward to our team being able to showcase what we’re doing now.”
Maryland and Iowa exchanged great performances in the series, as the highs and lows of each club could be seen.
What’s happened since
Following its series with Maryland, Iowa had its lone bye weekend of the regular season. Its loss to the Terps was the only one it suffered in the seven games prior to the break, as Iowa was playing great hockey.
That all changed in an instance, though, as the Hawkeyes were in for a rude awakening when they traveled to Evanston, Illinois, last weekend. The eighth-ranked Northwestern Wildcats swept Iowa, winning 2-1 and 1-0, respectively. Midfielder Esme Gibson had the only goal for the Hawkeyes on the weekend, and they are currently scoreless in their last six quarters.
As far as Maryland is concerned, the Terps finished out the regular season going 2-2 in a four-match homestand. Outright Big Ten champion Michigan first swept the Terps bringing their losing streak to three matches. However, Maryland responded greatly with a sweep over No. 6 Rutgers. The Terps have had four different stretches with at least two wins or two losses this season, but have some momentum heading into the conference tournament.
Both teams were flooded with conference postseason honors, which is no surprise considering the talent each squad possesses. Co-Big Ten Coach of the Year Lisa Cellucci’s roster was led by Anthe Nijziel, who won both Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in the Big Ten. Midfielder Ellie Holley was also named to the All-Big Ten First Team, while Murphy was selected to the Second Team. For Maryland, defender Riley Donnelly and midfielder Brooke DeBerdine were also selected to the First Team and are two of four Terps that earned postseason honors.
“I’m definitely super honored,” Donnelly said. “I had no idea that that was being decided this week, so [it] wasn’t even on my radar. I was just focusing on the tournament this week, but definitely...it gives me extra confidence going into the tournament.”
The University of Iowa is playing host to all nine Big Ten teams, so it will technically be Maryland’s third road match of the season against Iowa.
“I think there’s a reason people refer to home-court advantage,” Meharg said. “I look at it, as you know, there’s the opposite side of that. There’s the underdog, there’s the team that’s been here before, there’s a team that’s on a great string of playing the best brand we’ve played all year and I couldn’t be happier that we’re playing against Iowa.”
Three things to watch
1. Can Maryland carry its momentum from last weekend against Rutgers? Just three days ago, the Terps finished off a sweep against a top-six team in the nation. They did it in different ways, a great sign for tournament play. Last Thursday, Maryland was able to take down Rutgers by dominating with 12 shots and nine penalty corners. The Terps were outplayed Saturday, registering only seven shots and two penalty corners, but still found a way to win when it mattered most. Great teams win matches despite playing their “A-game,” and Maryland will have a chance to prove it is great against one of the nation’s best Wednesday.
2. Will the Terps keep their historic NCAA Tournament streak alive? Maryland has made the NCAA Tournament every single year it has been played since the 1994 season. Coincidentally, that year is the last time that Iowa had beaten Maryland before this season. With only two at-large bids available in this year’s reduced 12-team NCAA Tournament, the Terps will likely have to make a run to at least the conference championship game, as four Big Ten teams slot above Maryland in the national rankings and the RPI.
“Every day, when things seem to get too big or too nerve-racking, we just remind ourselves, we’re just lucky to be out here playing the sport we love,” Donnelly said.
3. Can Noelle Frost continue her strong play in her career against Iowa? In three career matches against the Hawkeyes, Frost has made 15 saves and has only allowed two goals. These outings include two shutouts against Iowa, with one coming on April 2 and the other coming on October 11, 2019. Frost has given up less than one goal per game against the Hawkeyes in those three starts and has made sensational saves against them this season. If Maryland is to win Wednesday, it will need another big-time performance from Frost.