Clash of the titans: No. 4 Jumbos challenge No. 1 Polar Bears in title bout tomorrow

There’s one final hurdle standing between the field hockey team and a perfect regular season: the No. 1 team in the nation.

In one of Tufts Athletics’ most highly anticipated regular season events in recent memory, the nationally ranked No. 4 Jumbos will travel to Brunswick, Maine tomorrow for a Halloween night showdown against defending national champion Bowdoin. The team that emerges victorious from the battle between the two league heavyweights will claim the conference’s regular season crown and earn home-field advantage for the NESCAC Tournament, set to begin Sunday.

“I’m just really excited,” coach Tina McDavitt said. “But we’ve talked about it all year: We take it one game at a time, and this is just another game for us. As much as we’re up for it and we’re excited, we’ve tried not to get too high or too low throughout the season, and it’s worked well for us. Bowdoin’s an awesome team, and we’ve proven that we’re an awesome team. It’s just going to be a really good hockey game. I have a good feeling, I’m excited to play, and I think it’s going to be a battle.”

In the process, the 13-0 Jumbos will be looking to complete an unbeaten regular season, something unprecedented both in program history and in recent school history. The last Tufts squad to record an undefeated campaign was the 1998-99 women’s indoor track and field team, which won all 17 of its meets, events much smaller in scale than the large invitationals in which today’s track squad participates.

In a more traditional sense, Tufts hasn’t seen a perfect season since 1989, when the women’s lacrosse team breezed through its schedule to a 13-0 record. No Jumbo field hockey team has ever gone an entire season without a loss.

Also at stake is the NESCAC regular season title, an especially prestigious distinction this year given the conference’s unparalleled strength. In the latest National Field Hockey Coaches Association (NFHCA) poll released Tuesday, half of the top eight spots — Bowdoin at No. 1, Tufts at No. 4, Middlebury at No. 6 and Trinity at No. 8 — belonged to NESCAC schools.

A victory would earn the Jumbos their first- ever regular season conference crown and the No. 1 seed in the NESCAC Tournament. A loss would leave Tufts and Bowdoin with identical 8-1 conference records, but the Polar Bears would take the title by virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker — namely, Friday’s contest.

“At the beginning of the season, it was one of my goals to see us host the NESCAC Tournament,” senior tri-captain Tess Jasinski said. “Now we’re just one game away. It just feels so within our grasp. We’re all just really excited to show everybody that we deserve to be in that top spot and to get that No. 1 seed.”

The top-ranked Polar Bears, who know a thing or two about undefeated seasons and conference championships, won’t by any means provide the Jumbos with an easy path to history. Last year’s Polar Bears squad compiled the seventh perfect season in Div. III history, winning all 20 of its games en route to a national championship. Along the way, Bowdoin swept the regular season and NESCAC Tournament crowns for the third consecutive year.

This time around, the Polar Bears have one imperfection in their armor, courtesy of a 2-0 loss to Trinity on Oct. 18 that snapped their 31-game winning streak. But any doubts about Bowdoin being rattled by the setback were quickly put to rest the following weekend when the Polar Bears blew out Colby 8-1 for their 32nd win in their last 33 games.

“There’s nothing weak about them: They’re a good offensive team, a good defensive team, they have good goalkeeping,” junior midfielder Margi Scholtes said. “They always come to play and never have a below-average game.”

But Tufts appears primed to carry out a changing of the guard atop the standings. Already having won games over Middlebury, Trinity and perennial contender Williams this season, the Jumbos know that a victory over the Polar Bears would cement their status as a true conference powerhouse.

“The rankings definitely could make it seem like we’re the underdog,” Jasinski said. “But I just feel like this year, we’ve had so many successes this season, coming through with big wins over Trinity and Middlebury. We’re just ready to prove that we can beat Bowdoin. I don’t think that we feel intimidated at all.”

At the very least, an appearance in the marquee matchup will give the Jumbos some national exposure in a season where, for all their success, they’ve flown mostly under the radar. Despite maintaining the only undefeated record across all three divisions of college field hockey, Tufts was stuck at the No. 5 spot in the national rankings for the weeks of Oct. 14 and 21. Even after knocking off then-No. 9 Trinity on Saturday, the Jumbos moved up only one spot to fourth, where they still sit behind a third-ranked Ursinus team with two losses.

“All along, we haven’t had respect, particularly in the coaches’ poll,” Scholtes said. “We’re the only team in NCAA Div. I, II and III to be undefeated, yet we’re ranked fourth in the coaches’ poll. It’s not like that means anything as far as getting an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, but it’s just a respect issue.”

A victory tomorrow would certainly go a long way toward changing some of those perceptions.

“The last couple weeks with the rankings, we’ve been a little disappointed at not being ranked higher,” Jasinski said. “But if we beat Bowdoin, I think we’ll be able to gain the respect that we deserve for the season that we’ve had so far.”