Everything was on the line today between No. 9 Maryland field hockey and a team it historically has dominated in No. 4 Iowa at the Big Ten Tournament.
With the Hawkeyes leading 2-0 and just around eight minutes to play in the first half, it was only going to take one more early goal to put the nail in the coffin for Iowa.
Midfielder/defender Esme Gibson attacked with persistence just outside the right half of Maryland’s shooting circle. Looking to find a teammate, Gibson fired the ball from about 15 feet outside of the circle. Forward Alex Wesneski, defended by midfielder Nathalie Fiechter, was streaking just inches in front of goalkeeper Noelle Frost. The goal, which was initially credited to Gibson but later was fixed, found Wesneski’s stick and deflected into the top left corner of the cage. Wesneski’s second goal of the day gave Iowa a 3-0 lead, and ultimately the 3-0 victory.
“We came out a little slow,” head coach Missy Meharg said. “Iowa is a very powerful team and dominated from the get go in the first 15 minutes, so really set the tempo for the match. Although we played a sustained great brand of hockey [in] the third and fourth, it was a lot of good hockey too late.”
The third meeting between the two teams this season, with each being played in Iowa City, Iowa, did not take long to get going.
The Hawkeyes earned the first penalty corner of the match with about 10 and a half minutes to play in the first quarter and made sure to capitalize off it. Forward Maddy Murphy inserted the ball to forward Leah Zellner, who set it perfectly for midfielder Ellie Holley. Holley fired the shot at a diving Frost, and the ball went off her glove and into the back of the cage for a 1-0 Iowa lead.
The Terps responded with a penalty corner of their own just seconds later, but it was blocked before they could register a shot.
Iowa took advantage of the Terps’ missed opportunity almost immediately, pushing deep into Maryland’s zone. Gibson used her speed to make a move deep into Maryland’s shooting circle, and she crossed the ball through the Maryland defense and over to Wesneski. Wesneski trickled the ball past goalkeeper Noelle Frost to give the Hawkeyes an early 2-0 lead.
Maryland again responded with a penalty corner, but it was unable to get a shot off as the ball flew over defender Maura Verleg’s stick.
Iowa came storming down the field again, and Murphy had a golden chance to give Iowa a controlling 3-0 lead. Frost came out of the cage to make a diving save, keeping the game within reach for the Terps.
The first quarter wrapped up with the Hawkeyes dominating and not only leading 2-0 but having all three shots by either team in the quarter.
Iowa continued to play with great speed in the second quarter, as Wesneski had a chance at her second goal with just over nine minutes to play, but Frost came out of the cage to make her second great save of the day.
It was Wesneski’s goal just about a minute later that gave the Hawkeyes a commanding three-goal lead.
Maryland had a great look to respond with about three minutes to go in the half, but Taylor Mason’s beaming shot at the cage was wide left.
The first half ended with Iowa in cruise control, winning 3-0 on its home field against a top-10 team nationally when it mattered most.
To start the third quarter, Maryland still continued to struggle to get anything going. Iowa’s pressure was relentless and it dictated the tempo it wanted the match to be played at.
The Terps finally generated something, earning their third penalty corner of the game with just under nine minutes to go in the third frame. Verleg had a clean look at the cage to cut the deficit to two, but midfielder Harper Dunne made a smart defensive play allowing the shot to go wide.
With around five minutes to play in the third quarter, Sofie Stribos had a look at the cage to extend the lead to four. Frost, the reigning National Defensive Player of the Week, made a point-blank save, and continued her strong play despite giving up three goals.
The third quarter wrapped up with the Hawkeyes still leading 3-0 and the Terps yet to register a shot on goal.
“They’re a very good team and their defenders are also very good,” senior midfielder Kyler Greenwalt said. “But, I feel like maybe we didn’t do all that we could.”
The Terps did not do themselves any favors starting the fourth quarter, as Verleg’s early green card put Maryland at a one-player disadvantage.
Wesneski was looking for the hat trick with just over 6 minutes to play as she made a move past defender Rayne Wright and into the shooting circle. However, Frost charged out of the cage and forced Wesneski’s shot wide.
While Maryland finished the game with four penalty corners and four shots, the glaring stat was the zero shots on goal in 60 minutes. Iowa was dominant all day long and controlled the game both on the offensive and defensive side of the ball. Maryland wraps up its season at 8-7 as it awaits its NCAA Tournament fate.
“We’ve been through a journey,” Meharg said. “We’ve been for each other and with each other, thick and thin, win, [loss], we’re in it together. I couldn’t be more proud of the memories with this team over so many years of just what you know to be a regular season, there’s nothing regular about what we’ve done.”
Three things to know
1. Iowa absolutely dominated the first half. The Hawkeyes put relentless pressure on Frost and Maryland’s defense in the first 30 minutes, and it paid dividends. Not only were the Hawkeyes in possession of a 3-0 halftime lead, but they were dominating the shot battle, 6-3, putting five of those six on goal. Iowa’s speed was too much to handle and the tone it set from the jump gave them the all-important Big Ten quarterfinal victory.
“Many times it’s not a matter of what went wrong, it’s a matter of the opposition’s power and dominance,” Meharg said. “They utilized their rotations very well out of their backs, they gambled a lot and they were very athletic and I didn’t feel that we were prepared for that... I applaud Iowa, they’re a dominant team.”
2. Alex Wesneski was lethal for the Hawkeyes. Heading into the Big Ten Tournament, Wesneski only had one goal this season and often came off the bench. An unlikely hero, the freshman forward from Forty-Fort, Pennsylvania, made her mark in the most important game of the season. It seemed like she was always in the right place at the right time, linking with Gibson on both of her goals. Wesneski’s presence was definitely felt in the third contest in 15 matches between Maryland and Iowa.
3. Maryland is in jeopardy of missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1994. After playing a full Big Ten slate, Maryland wrapped up its season at 8-7 in arguably the best conference in the country. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Spring 2021 NCAA Tournament will be played with only 12 teams instead of the usual 18. This means that there are only two at-large bids this season, with the other 10 teams being automatic qualifiers. With four Big Ten teams ranked ahead of the Terps, this could likely be the end of the road for Maryland. The selection show will take place at 10 p.m. Saturday.
“We’ll see this coming weekend if we’ll be in the NCAA Tournament,” Greenwalt said. “I’m just really proud of my team and my teammates. I honestly wouldn’t want to go through this journey with anyone else, and everyone’s just had everybody’s backs. It’s very sad that we lost but I’m really proud of everyone.”