Newly ranked Cal field hockey team ready to prove itself against 2 top teams

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Cal field hockey head coach Shellie Onstead believes her team is one of the best in the country, and after getting a bit of validation from coaches around the country, the Bears have an opportunity to more firmly establish themselves this weekend in Evanston, Illinois.

After a dominating 3-1 victory over Yale last Sunday, the Bears made their season debut in the National Field Hockey Coaches Association poll at No. 25, and moved up to No. 7 in the NCAA rating percentage index, or RPI, rankings.

This weekend, Cal (3-3) is set to face two solid teams — Iowa and Northwestern, which rank No. 13 and No. 14, respectively, in the coaches poll, but below Cal in the RPI rankings at No. 22 and No. 18. With wins over these teams, the Bears can justify their RPI ranking and demonstrate to other programs that they are a top-tier team.

“I think we have a lot more grit than a lot of teams and coaches think we have” said junior Fionna Jensen. “Our hearts are very in it. … We’re a good team; we’re going to show other teams this year that we shouldn’t be messed with.”

Saturday’s game will be against Iowa (7-1), a team that has won six straight games, with five coming as shutouts. The only loss for the Hawkeyes this season was to now-No. 1 North Carolina in overtime, and in its eight games, Iowa has outscored its opponents 25-4.

The Hawkeyes are led by junior midfielder/defender Katie Birch, a first team All-Big Ten and third team All-American selection last season. Birch makes an impact all over the field — she was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week for her performance last weekend, as Iowa allowed just six shots in two shutout victories. On offense, Birch is second on the team with five goals, and leads the team with six assists.

Anchoring Iowa’s defense is junior goalkeeper Leslie Speight, who leads the nation with a 87.5 save percentage. Speight has conceded just four goals thus far in 2018.

The Hawkeyes and Bears have faced two mutual opponents, and the results have been inconclusive: Though both teams fell to North Carolina, Cal lost in a blowout, while Iowa lost in overtime; and though both teams defeated Providence, Cal won in a blowout, while Iowa won 1-0.

On Sunday, Cal will face host school Northwestern (5-4), a team that, like Cal, has faced a tough schedule so far this season. The Wildcats have played six of their nine games against top-25 schools, going 2-4 against these opponents.

Northwestern has also gone head-to-head with two of the same opponents as Cal — Miami University of Ohio and Louisville, sharing the same outcomes both times. Both teams beat Miami — Cal by one and Northwestern by two — and both squads fell to Louisville by a single goal.

Iowa and Northwestern will provide solid competition for Cal this weekend; two wins for the Bears would make a statement to the rest of the nation.

“I [(said) the same thing as when we went to Louisville,” Onstead said. “We have a chance to come away with two really big wins.”

Tim Sun covers field hockey. Contact him at [email protected].