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The Daily Tar Heel

Preview: UNC field hockey faces Northwestern in national championship rematch

20231117_Sharon_field-hockey-vs-uva-ncaa-semi-37-2.jpg
UNC freshman midfielder/forward Sanne Hak (5) and sophomore forward Ryleigh Heck (12) celebrate after a goal during the NCAA Field Hockey Semifinal on Friday, Nov. 17, 2023, at Karen Shelton Stadium. UNC won 2-0 and will advance to the finals.

As field hockey fans around the country look ahead to the national championship game this Sunday in Chapel Hill at 1:30 p.m., they will notice two familiar names in the title game: No. 1 North Carolina and No. 2 Northwestern.

Their recent postseason clashes have been notable. North Carolina defeated Northwestern in last year’s national championship game, and the Wildcats knocked out the Tar Heels in the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

However, a few things are different this time around.

North Carolina’s key weapon from last season is now on the sidelines rather than the field. In her inaugural season as head coach, Erin Matson has led the Tar Heels to a 17-3 record and has proven that her field hockey expertise can expand beyond the bounds of the playing area.

For Northwestern, forward Bente Baekers transferred to California. Baekers scored the lone Northwestern goal in last year's national title game and was a critical component of the Wildcat offense last season.

Despite these significant roster changes, both the Wildcats and the Tar Heels have found success in other ways this season. Northwestern has only one loss on the season, which came in their first game of the year against then-No. 9 Louisville. Since that game in August, the Wildcats have ripped off a 21-game win streak. Similarly, North Carolina is on a six-game win streak since its loss at Virginia in October. 

Here are two keys to the Tar Heels' success as they look to secure the program's eleventh national championship.

Stop a multifaceted Northwestern offense

The Wildcats have extensive depth on their roster. Three players have scored more than 10 goals this season and three players have recorded more than 10 assists. On top of this, Northwestern shares the ball well and generates a movement-based offense.

The Tar Heels need to contain Northwestern's key facilitator in midfielder Alia Marshall, who boasts an impressive 24 assists on the year — including five in NCAA Tournament play. 

The Tar Heels must also limit scoring opportunities for Northwestern’s frequent goal-scorers in Olivia Bent-Cole, Peyton Halsey and Ilse Trompe, who have accounted for 33 of Northwestern’s goals this season.

North Carolina can rely on its backs and midfielders to lock Northwestern down in the neutral zones. Senior midfielder Katie Dixon and senior back Romea Riccardo have been versatile players for the Tar Heels all season. Dixon and Riccardo will need to be hounds on defense and prevent the Wildcats from moving the ball and facilitating their offense.

Earn and execute penalty corners

Penalty corners are a staple of North Carolina field hockey. The Tar Heels have earned 149 penalty corners this season and showcased new options in its corner set pieces earlier this postseason.

Despite recent success, UNC ran into an apparent roadblock in this category in Friday’s Final Four matchup against Virginia. They earned only five corners — eight fewer than in their matchup against Harvard in the second round of the tournament.

Whatever the cause, this left the Tar Heels with limited scoring opportunities on Friday. In the title game, North Carolina must earn penalty corners, successfully execute the ones they have been running all season and pull out new plays that they have been saving in order to establish an offensive rhythm on Sunday.

@j_kidd03

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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