The final seconds quickly ticked away on the Phyllis Ocker Field Hockey Field scoreboard. Northwestern’s players could barely contain their celebratory nature on a dreary Sunday afternoon in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Liberty, especially its forward line, had a difficult time processing the zero under its name on the scoreboard.
Northwestern neutralized the nation’s most explosive offense. Then the Wildcats made sure two third-quarter goals stood up to secure the program’s first national championship.
Liberty was denied the chance to claim the university’s first Division I team national title in a 2-0 loss to the Wildcats in the NCAA Tournament national championship game.
The Flames (20-3) saw their 17-game winning streak come to an end, and they were shut out for the first time since Oct. 28, 2019 in a 1-0 loss at Virginia.
“I think today we just got the wrong end of the stick,” Liberty forward Jill Bolton said. “We just couldn’t put anything in the back of the net, which is a bummer. To be shut out for the first time since 2019 is insane for our forward line.”
Liberty scored 140 goals spanning 43 games (3.25 goals per game) between shutouts, and it entered the national title game leading the nation by scoring 3.64 goals per game.
However, the Wildcats (18-5) received stellar play from goalkeeper Annabel Skubisz late in the first quarter, and the backline held the Flames to one shot over the final 32 minutes.
“Once she made it through that patch, I think it lifted the rest of the team up and we were able to really get on our front foot and really put some pressure on Liberty’s defense,” Northwestern coach Tracey Fuchs said.
Skubisz and her defensive help stopped three consecutive shots within a 20-second gap on one penalty corner. Those were the only shots on goal the Flames were able to produce in the game.
“I think they just did a really good job of playing tough D. They packed the circle pretty tight and made it hard for us to get our good shots off that we normally get off,” Bolton said. “Their backline played a great line of defense for the whole game and their goalie played a heck of a game as well. We just couldn’t put anything in the back of the net with a bunch of people in front of us.”
Liberty goalkeeper Azul Iritxity Irigoyen recorded six of her seven saves in a dazzling second quarter. She, like Skubisz in the first period, stopped three shots on one penalty corner attempt, and also recorded the save of the game with a kick save on Bente Baekers’ penalty stroke attempt with a little less than four minutes remaining in the first half.
“She’s one of the best goalies in the country, there’s no doubt about that,” Liberty coach Nikki Parsley-Blocker said of Iritxity Irigoyen. “I have never seen a stroke save like that. That was insane. She’s just outstanding.”
Northwestern finally broke through on its seventh penalty corner of the game to take the lead for good.
Maren Seidel sent a shot in on a set piece, and Alia Marshall was positioned perfectly to Iritxity Irigoyen’s right to tap in the shot into the left side of the cage for a 1-0 lead with a little more than nine minutes left in the third quarter.
The Wildcats played with more freedom with the goal lead, and that was evident on Maddie Zimmer’s run late in the third quarter. She delivered a shot from the right side that deflected off Reagan Underwood and into the goal to give Northwestern a 2-0 lead with 6.3 seconds left in the third quarter.
“I think their coaches made a good gameplan for the second half and they just shut us down after a little bit. It just didn’t fall our way today. I think it’s a bummer. We had a heck of a season, and what more could you want?”
Liberty had never advanced past the NCAA Tournament first round prior to this season. The Flames rattled off three victories over ranked teams, including their first triumph over a No. 1-ranked team against Rutgers to advance to the Final Four, and played toe-to-toe with one of the Big Ten’s top teams in Northwestern.
The Flames featured eight seniors on this season’s roster, with Bolton, Kendra Jones and Alexis Paone leading the group as super seniors.
“They’re the people that built this house,” Parsley-Blocker said of those super seniors. “They’re the girls that help build this culture and lay a foundation and I think ultimately got us to this point because of everything that they poured into it.”
The other five seniors could elect to return for an extra year of eligibility because of the COVID season, but Liberty will have a strong roster for the 2022 season.
Big East offensive player of the year Daniella Rhodes is slated to return and will lead the forward line with Martu Cian. Iritxity Irigoyen will anchor a defense that will feature Underwood, Bethany and Emily Dykema, Jodie Conolly and Lexi Hosler.
“I don’t think it’s sunk in how much we did do. I know we didn’t win the national championship, but to even make it here is incredible,” Parsley-Blocker said. “Certainly we want to win. We don’t just want to get here, but you have to get here sometimes before you win it. I hope, Lord willing, we’re back, but I just am always going to remember it as the first time that we were here with a really special group of student-athletes.”