Strong, steady defense lifts Iowa field hockey as it heads to NCAA tournament

Iowa field hockey has been known as a defensive-minded team for the entire season and are as strong as ever as they travel to North Carolina for their first NCAA tournament game.

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Strong, steady defense lifts Iowa field hockey as it heads to NCAA tournament

Iowa midfielder Katie Birch looks to pass during a field hockey match between Iowa and California on Friday, September 13, 2019. The Hawkeyes defeated the Bears, 4-2. (Shivansh Ahuja/The Daily Iowan)

Iowa midfielder Katie Birch looks to pass during a field hockey match between Iowa and California on Friday, September 13, 2019. The Hawkeyes defeated the Bears, 4-2. (Shivansh Ahuja/The Daily Iowan)

Shivansh Ahuja

Iowa midfielder Katie Birch looks to pass during a field hockey match between Iowa and California on Friday, September 13, 2019. The Hawkeyes defeated the Bears, 4-2. (Shivansh Ahuja/The Daily Iowan)

Shivansh Ahuja

Shivansh Ahuja

Iowa midfielder Katie Birch looks to pass during a field hockey match between Iowa and California on Friday, September 13, 2019. The Hawkeyes defeated the Bears, 4-2. (Shivansh Ahuja/The Daily Iowan)

Chris Werner, Sports Reporter

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No team has scored more than three times in any game this season against the sixth-ranked Iowa field hockey team.

That impressive statistic is due in part to the steady play of senior goalkeeper Leslie Speight, but more so because of the Hawkeyes’ entire defensive unit.

“Our goalkeeping is fantastic, and really the front three in front of our goalkeeper, they are just stalwart defenders,” head coach Lisa Cellucci said. “They are individually disciplined, they’re skilled, and they’re just competitors, and I think that’s a big piece to it.”

One of those stalwart defenders, senior captain Katie Birch, who was recently named a unanimous first team All-Big-Ten selection, mentioned teamwork and dependability for the Hawkeyes.

“If we’re going to make a tackle, we do it together, I think that’s really important,” Birch said. “We just try and defend outside of our circle, like make any crisis as minimum as we possibly can. I think it’s just that trust in each and every player that they’re going to do what they’ve got to do to make a play or make a tackle.”

Speight, as her as well as back-up Grace McGuire, have combined to allow just 1.15 goals per game, but Speight defers the credit to her defenders.

RELATED: Iowa field hockey wins Big Ten Tournament

“My defense makes it really easy for me,” Speight said. “They’re great; they make my job a lot easier. There’s just a lot of trust back there, like, I know they have my back, and they know I have theirs. Yeah, I save the balls, but my defense does all the hard work. They’re the ones that put pressure on the people taking the shots.”

The defensive pressure is evident in the season’s stats as the Hawkeyes have only allowed opponents 6.4 shots per game compared to the Hawkeyes 15.8 and just 3.85 shots on goal per game, while Iowa has averaged 9.35 shots on goal per game over the season’s first 20 contests.

Speight also mentioned Iowa’s ability to defend as one unit, saying that each player on the team is a part of the defense and mentioning great on-field communication as a key for the Hawkeyes.

Iowa’s defense was nearly impenetrable during last week’s Big Ten Tournament hosted by Penn State, which the Hawkeyes took down 1-0 in overtime in the championship game.

Iowa only allowed two goals in the three tournament games, even though all three teams that the Hawkeyes faced are ranked in this week’s National Field Hockey Coaches Association Division I Coaches Poll. Ohio State is ranked No. 24, Northwestern is in the No. 11 spot, and Penn State is No. 22 nationally.

Iowa’s defense will certainly have to play well again on Friday as the Hawkeyes begin their quest for a national title, when the Black and Gold face No. 8 Duke in the first round of the NCAA tournament beginning at 1:30 p.m. The contest is a rematch with the Blue Devils as Duke snuck past Iowa earlier this season 2-1 in double-overtime at Grant Field in September.

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