Northwestern offers test as Knights' first Big Ten road matchup
The Rutgers field hockey team hits the road for its first Big Ten road trip in history this weekend, when it will play at the No. 13 Northwestern Wildcats (6-3) on Friday and the No. 14 Michigan Wolverines (6-2) on Sunday.
For the Scarlet Knights (4-3, 0-1), it marks an imperative time to bounce back after a slow start to conference play.
“Our team rises to the challenge — they rise to the occasion, and they rise to the level of play and the environment,” said head coach Meredith Long. “I expect them to perform under the pressure.”
Both Big Ten teams have high-powered offenses, with Michigan currently leading the conference in goals per game at 3.45 (28 goals in eight games).
Northwestern is coming off a big win with an upset over then-ranked No. 2 Maryland. The Wildcats lost close games to No. 2 Connecticut, No. 11 Louisville and No. 16 Wake Forest.
The matchup marks the first meeting between the two programs.
Michigan, meanwhile, has beaten No. 7 Penn State with hard-fought losses against No. 1 North Carolina and No. 16 Wake Forest. The Wolverines lead the all-time series with Rutgers, 2-0.
“If we are mentally and physically tough against them, we can definitely come away with the win,” Long said. “But it’s going to be a fight.”
In order to step up and stop these high-powered offenses, it’s going to come down to how well Rutgers’ defense plays.
Michigan has multiple scoring threats with Leslie Smith (six goals) and Shannon Scavelli (five goals). Northwestern can do much of the same with Isabel Flens (seven goals), Caroline Troncelliti (six goals) and Dominique Masters (five goals).
Unlike the last game, where Iowa had one player who could create multiple opportunities, Rutgers now has multiple playmakers on the opposition to prepare for.
“I think structurally, we are going to set up differently and vary in our structure to try to limit counter attacks,” sophomore Devon Freshnock said of the defensive game plan. “We have to be really organized in the backfield. We are definitely going to be working on tackling outside the circle instead of committing fouls inside the circle. We are going to deny circle entry.”
The defense will once again be without sophomore backer Sophia Walia, as she attends to personal matters.
Long has made a tactical position change by switching senior captain midfielder Jenn Staab to the back three to play defense.
After going scoreless last week against the Hawkeyes, the Knights are searching for answers on offense.
“We are going to look to Katie Champion, Jasmine Cole, Nicole Imbriaco and Rachel Yaney to step up for us up there [forward’s line], and we are looking for a little bit more individual effort from each of those players this weekend,” Long said. “We need them to rise to the occasion.”
The offense will be without Walia, who has been the go-to player for penalty strokes and setting shots. Rutgers faces the challenge of replacing her production.
“We have to really use our midlines and our forwards to penetrate the circle entry and keep the ball in the circle to prevent the rebounds from coming out,” said junior forward Nicole Imbriaco.
One other key for Knights in a game and setting like this will be controlling the tempo and time of possession.
“When we control possession of a game, we control momentum,” Long said.
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