By RICK BROWN
IOWA CITY, Iowa — The University of Iowa’s field hockey program, once one of the nation’s very best, is showing signs of getting some swagger back.
The 10th-ranked Hawkeyes, in the top-10 for the first time since 2014, are 10-2. That’s the program’s best 12-game start since 2008. Iowa is 3-2 against rated teams and 4-0 at Grant Field, where it has outscored opponents 19-1.
Those impressive statistics will be challenged this weekend when the Hawkeyes host No. 6 Michigan on Friday at 3 p.m. (CT) and No. 21 Stanford at 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
Iowa head coach Lisa Cellucci has a team deep in camaraderie. It’s a young team, too, with just three seniors on the roster.
“We’ve had zero issues, zero drama, and they have a lot of fun,” Cellucci said. “I think some of it has to do with youth. They don’t know what they don’t know. They get along well with a lot of different personalities, but that’s what makes it so neat.
“They’re all accepting of each other and we’re on a mission to right the ship and put Iowa field hockey back on the map.”
The seeds to this season were planted over the summer.
“What set us up was their preparation for the season,” Cellucci said. “We came in very fit. We had a lot of players in here this summer. They were constantly working on their game, and we have had great momentum so far.”
Iowa’s success has been centered around its defense. The Hawkeyes are allowing just .067 goals per game, which ranks second nationally.
“We’re defending well as a team with great defensive organization,” Cellucci said. “It’s amazing because we have a lot of youth in our back field. That’s probably the biggest piece to our game right now. We’re not giving opponents much to work with offensively.”
Junior goalkeeper Leslie Speight is second nationally in goals against average (0.64) and fifth in win-loss percentage (.833). She has allowed just six goals this season.
“She has been doing a great job,” Cellucci said. “What has been great is she hasn’t had to play the ball very much at all. That’s key to be able to make shots predictable or not give up many at all. That’s going to change quite a bit this weekend with the two opponents we have coming in.”
Stanford (7-3) ranks sixth nationally in points per game at 10.80. Michigan, leading the Big Ten with a 4-1 record and 8-4 overall, is 20th at 8.00. Forward Emma Way has a Big Ten-best 13 goals on 59 shots. The Wolverines are coached by former Iowa star and two-time Olympian Marcia Pankratz.
“Michigan is lethal up front, and has a lot of offensive firepower,” Cellucci said. “We have to make sure we buckle down and organize.”
Iowa is getting a terrific season out of junior Katie Birch, a returning All-America and All-Big Ten performer. She had her team-best eighth assist in a 2-1 double-overtime victory at Ohio State on Sunday. Her seventh goal of the season was the winner against the Buckeyes.
“She has the potential to be one of the best that has gone through here, and that’s saying a lot,” Cellucci said. “We’ve had a lot of great players. She’s involved in every part of our game. She draws so much attention.
“She’s double- and triple-teamed in almost every game. What she has been able to do and how she’s still able to execute is remarkable.”
Sophomore Maddy Murphy has a team-high 23 points on a team-high nine goals and five assists.
“Maddy’s an unbelievable competitor,” Cellucci said. “She fast and fit. She has had to play multiple positions and she has a knack for the goal. We rely on her heavily to get us upgraded situations in our offensive third, and she comes through time and time again.”
Sophie Sunderland, a junior, has developed into a key component of this team.
“She gets better every game,” Cellucci said. “It has been quite a transformation from her freshman year to now. She was our practice player of the year last year. She is intense, fit, and quite a competitor.
You have to love that she holds all her teammates accountable, every day on the field. She pushes people to be better.”
Another welcome surprise has been the play of sophomore Mya Christopher.
“Her freshman year she played in the defense, but she’s more on the midfield and forward line right now and is really playing well for us,” Cellucci said.
Michigan gets the big weekend started Friday with some Big Ten chips on the line. The Wolverines have won eight straight in a series Iowa leads, 40-25.
“We have quite a rivalry with Michigan,” Cellucci said. “The team is excited and ready to go.”