Tufts’ fate was in the hands of the selection committee as the team sat and watched the selection show on Monday for the Div. III national tournament. The Jumbos were fighting for one of 19 at-large bids for the tournament and were hoping that their resume was good enough to receive one, even though they knew that they were firmly on the bubble. The team had earned the third seed in the NESCAC tournament but lost at home 1-0 to sixth-seeded Bowdoin, who went on to win the conference tournament. With a 9-4-3 record, the team was confident in its ability to make noise in the tournament despite its less than stellar resume.
Eventually, the selection committee agreed to award the Jumbos one of the last spots in the tournament. Tufts will take on Salisbury University in the first round on Saturday at Montclair State in Montclair, N.J. at 7:30 p.m. If the Jumbos advance further, they will play the winner of the game between Montclair State (18-2-1) and Daniel Webster College (18-3-0).
“I know the guys were in the room together and watching the selection show, and I think we all believed collectively we were good enough and deserved to be in, but at the same time, knew that our record wasn’t stellar,” coach Josh Shapiro said. “It was really going to come down to what the committee valued. I was certainly relieved to see us on the board and now we are excited to begin our second season.”
This is a familiar position for the Jumbos, who were awarded an at-large bid to the national tournament last season before running the table to win Tufts’ first national title. Though defending its title has been one of the team’s goals since the preseason, for a brief moment it looked as though Tufts would not get the opportunity, as there were teams in the NESCAC with better overall records. One such team was the second seed in the NESCAC tournament, Middlebury, which ended the season with a penalty kick shootout loss in the conference semifinal to the eventual runner-up Wesleyan.
The Middlebury team had a 13-2-2 overall record, but Tufts triumphed over them 1-0 in a head-to-head matchup on Oct. 10. Tufts’ resume also includes a Nov. 13 win against Gordon College, who ended the season as the champions of the Commonwealth Coast Conference. These wins were good enough in the committee’s mind to award Tufts a spot in the tournament. This is Tufts’ third berth in the last four years, as the team qualified for the tournament in 2012 as well as last year.
“I was extremely excited to be given the opportunity to defend our title,” senior tri-captain Jason Kayne said.
No. 16 Salisbury enters the tournament with ease, having won the Capital Athletic Conference regular season and tournament. The team has not lost a game in its last ten (7-0-3) and boasts a strong defense. The team shut out its opponents in 10 of its 19 games and only surrendered 0.58 goals per game on average this season, which ranks 16th nationally. In addition, the Seagull goalkeeper, senior Drew Staedeli, saved 89.8 percent of the shots taken on him, which ranks fourth in the nation. On offense, junior midfielder Leslie Umunna led the team in scoring with seven goals this season, while sophomore forward Brooks Zentgraf scored six. Salisbury scored 1.63 goals per game this season, meaning that the team will have its hands full with Tufts’ vaunted defense.
“They are a seasoned veteran team that will know how to play,” Shapiro said. “They don’t concede a lot of goals and they score goals, but they don’t score outrageous amounts. Sounds like they are pretty similar to us in that they’re a playing team that is going to be very sound defensively and look to take some chances when they are created.”
The Jumbos have given up only 0.47 goals per game this season, ranking ninth nationally. Junior goalkeeper Scott Greenwood, who currently holds the school’s record for career shutouts with 28, patrolled the back line on last season’s national championship team and did not let up this season. He has only given up 0.50 goals per game, on average, and saved 85.5 percent of the shots he has faced, which is ranked 12th in the nation. The defense has been stingy all year and put together a stretch from Oct. 10 to Oct. 31 during which they did not concede a goal.
This strong defense takes the pressure off of the offense. Leading the attack for the Jumbos this season has been junior forward Nathan Majumder, who scored nine out of the 20 total goals the team scored this season and frequently provided an offensive spark in many crucial games. The next leading scorer was senior Rui Pinheiro with two goals. Other key players on the offensive side of the ball include Kayne, fellow senior tri-captain Connor Brown, sophomore Kevin Halliday, and junior Kevin Lawson.
“I think our confidence seems to be high this week,” Shapiro said. “I think we’re confident that we can go in and make some noise. I think we certainly believe that we’re not a favorite in our pot … but they’re not too many teams out there happy to be staring across the line from Tufts University right now. I think we’re very capable of playing with anybody and I think we’re confident that we can go in and create results.”
The players understand what it takes to win an NCAA tournament, as many of them played a big role last season when the Jumbos made history by becoming the first team ever to win all six of its games on the road. They have a chance to achieve the ultimate goal and send the seniors out with back-to-back championships — an opportunity they will not take lightly.