Members of the University of Maine field hockey team celebrate after defeating California on Nov. 5, 2021, in Orono to advance to the America East tournament finals. Credit: Ronnie Gillis / UMaine Athletics

The University of Maine’s field hockey team will open the 2022 season in style: hosting the national champion Northwestern University Huskies from Evanston, Illinois.

The Black Bears had a memorable 2021 season in which they won the America East Tournament for the first time to earn their first NCAA Tournament berth. The team traveled to Miami University in Ohio and turned in an impressive showing before losing 3-2 in overtime.

It is the first time a UMaine field hockey team has ever entertained a national champion. UMass will also join Northwestern and UMaine in Orono on Aug. 27-29.

Atlantic-10 semifinalist and nationally ranked UMass will play UMaine on Saturday, Aug. 27, UMaine and Northwestern will tangle on Sunday, and UMass and Northwestern will play on Monday.

UMaine field hockey coach Josette Babineau said it is always nice to play one of the nation’s top teams but to play the defending national champion “will make the game even more special.”

Northwestern beat Liberty University (Virginia) 2-0 in the NCAA championship game to cap an 18-5 season. The Huskies had also beaten North Carolina (2-0), Iowa (1-0) and Harvard (2-1 in overtime) leading up to the NCAA championship game.

Semifinalist Harvard had beaten UMaine 2-1 in overtime during the regular season.

UMaine visited Evanston on Sept. 12 and lost to Northwestern 5-0.

Babineau and Northwestern coach Tracey Fuchs arranged to have a home-and-home series, so now Northwestern is coming to Orono.

Some of the nation’s highly ranked programs like Northwestern are willing to travel to the Northeast to help promote the sport, Babineau said.

“They know it is difficult for us to draw teams to our area,” said Babineau, who hopes Maine high school field hockey players will attend the Sunday game.

All three teams will get the opportunity to christen UMaine’s new turf field, which is part of the $90 million Harold Alfond Foundation gift to the university to upgrade its athletic facilities.

They will also be making upgrades to the facility itself, like the addition of a press box, but Babineau doesn’t know if they will be completed at the time.

Babineau said her players are looking forward to the challenge of playing the national champions.

“It will be a good experience for our players. We want our non-conference schedule to be as strong as possible to prepare us for our conference games,” Babineau said.

She said UMass will be a formidable opponent too, as the Minutemen were ranked 18th in the country when they lost to Virginia Commonwealth in the Atlantic-10 semifinals.

UMass beat UMaine 3-2 in overtime on Aug. 29 in Amherst, Massachusetts, and went on to have a 13-6 campaign. 

“They’re always a good team and we haven’t had much success against them,” Babineau said.

Babineau said her team will be looking to atone for its performance in the loss at Northwestern in which the Huskies attempted 31 shots to UMaine’s three.

UMaine had lost a double overtime game to Kent State the day before.

“It wasn’t a very competitive game for various reasons. We had played a string of overtime games and we weren’t in the best physical condition. We struggled with the speed of the game,” Babineau said. “It will be interesting to see how we handle their speed and skill.”

Northwestern had two graduate students on its team and six seniors but all six seniors will be eligible to return since the 2021 spring season didn’t count as a year of eligibility due to the COIVID-19 pandemic.

UMaine will lose five graduate students who were integral parts of the team’s success in Cassandra Mascarenhas, Hana Davis, Brittany Smith, Old Town’s Brooke Sulinski and Garland’s Abby Webber.

UMaine finished at 15-7 with 14 wins in its last 16 games, including a shootout win over Albany in the America East title game.

Mascarenhas was chosen the America East Midfielder of the Year and became just the second player in America East to be named Defender of the Year and Midfielder of the Year during their careers; Davis was a former Midfielder of the Year who was a second team All-AE selection this season; Smith helped anchor the defense and had 10 assists, Sulinski was the team’s second leading goal scorer with 11 and point-producer with 26 and Webber was a dependable and hard-working midfielder.

Headlining the returnees will be fullback and leading scorer Poppy Lambert (17 goals), AE Goalkeeper of the Year Mia Borley (1.89 goals-against average, .700 save percentage), two-time All-AE first team selection Chloe Walton (10 goals, 6 assists), midfielder Madisyn Hartley from Pittsfield (1 goal, 13 assists) and forward Sydney Meader from Boothbay Harbor (6 & 4), along with Portland back Hannah Abbott (0 & 1), forward Julia Ross (3 & 1) and midfielder Tereza Holubcova (1 & 6).