By SHANE STURTZ
DURHAM, N.C. — The seventh-ranked University of Iowa field hockey enters the NCAA Tournament for the 23rd time in program history with a 14-6 record, the most wins in a season since 2011.
A team with only three seniors and eight freshmen, Iowa has reasserted itself back into the national conversation. Iowa’s confidence has shined brightest throughout the season, never letting small setbacks get in the way of the team’s goals
The Hawkeyes lost back-to-back games just once this season. An impressive feat that becomes more astounding as they bounced back from the two-game skid at the end of the regular season by nearly winning three straight games to win the Big Ten Championship as a six seed.
The Hawkeyes came up a tad short, losing 2-1 to Maryland in the finals, but they found their way into the NCAA Tournament as the top at-large bid in the country with the fifth overall seed.
Iowa will face No. 12 Wake Forest at 1:30 p.m.(CT) in a Sweet 16 matchup at Jack Katz Stadium in Durham, North Carolina.
“It was amazing we were able to play ourselves into the Big Ten Championship and beat Michigan,” head coach Lisa Celluccisaid. “To know we were an at-large bid was outstanding. Our team is psyched. We were psyched about the draw, knowing we have played Wake Forest before.”
Behind two first-half goals from junior Katie Birch and sophomore Maddy Murphy, Iowa beat Wake Forest, 2-0, in its season opener, which was Iowa’s first of seven wins against top-25 opponents.
“We’ve definitely come a long way since playing them at the beginning of the year, but we’re super excited,” said Murphy, who leads Iowa with 13 goals. “We deserve to be here still. We’ve still got a long way to go.”
The season-long confidence has never diminished; instead, Iowa posted many memorable moments.
A crushing 2-1 overtime loss to No. 1 and still undefeated North Carolina in game two of the season was a sign for how high these Hawkeyes could fly. The loss propelled Iowa to a six-game win streak in September, including a four-game shutout streak, which had not been done since 2000.
October had its own highlights, too. The Hawkeyes took down fourth-ranked Penn State, 3-2, for the first time since 2014 behind Murphy’s first career hat trick. As an encore in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals, Iowa beat the Nittany Lions again, this time 3-2 in double overtime when freshman Anthe Nijziel drilled home the game-winning goal to secure another statement win for the Hawkeyes.
Iowa’s unrelenting confidence has led Lisa Cellucci to her best season as the head Hawk, including her first NCAA Tournament appearance while at the helm.
“It’s been awhile since we’ve been in the Sweet 16,” Cellucci said, “and I couldn’t be happier for the team.”
The team rolled into Durham, North Carolina, on Wednesday night after picking up Michigan’s field hockey team, who play in the Chapel Hill regional. The following afternoon, Iowa practiced at Duke’s Jackson Katz Stadium to prepare for the Demon Deacons.
“Everyone’s feeling confident for tomorrow,” midfielder Sophie Sunderland said. “We got what we needed to get out of practice today, which is positive going into tomorrow.”
Tomorrow the Hawkeyes will face Wake Forest in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at 1:30 p.m. (CT), looking to reach the Elite Eight for the first time since 2008.