Junior goalkeeper Annie Ross was facing the biggest moment of her athletic career. And she came through – in a big way.
The NCAA Sectional Championship between the Jumbos and the Oneonta State Red Dragons came down to penalty kicks. With Tufts up 4-3 and Oneonta down to its final shooter, Ross stepped into the box, kicked her cleats, and knocked each goal post in preparation for the shot.
“I was trying to read her hips and see where they went and go from there,” Ross said. “As a goalie, it’s a hard situation to be in, but you’re not supposed to save them. So if you get one, it’s awesome. The pressure is on the other team and you just have to guess one way. Hopefully you guess right.”
And she did. The junior made a diving save just inside the right post, and before she could even reach her feet, the Jumbos and their fans were charging the field to celebrate. The win gave the Jumbos the sectional crown to add to the regional title they earned a day earlier with a 5-2 win over Wheaton, and propelled them to the NCAA Final Four next weekend in Greensboro, N.C.
“I’m just in shock right now,” sophomore Martha Furtek said. “We couldn’t have asked for more. This was one of our goals this season and I don’t know how many people actually thought it would come true, but here we are.”
“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” Coach Martha Whiting said. “I know what’s going on but it’s so hard to actually believe what we’re doing and what we’ve already done. It’s over-the-top unbelievable.”
In a dead-even match between two very talented squads, Oneonta came out firing in a packed house of mostly Red Dragon fans. The Tufts defense, led by junior Jen Fratto, held strong, and Ross was solid to keep Oneonta off the scoreboard.
The offense settled into a rhythm as the game progressed, controlling the ball and creating several opportunities on the Oneonta net. Neither team dominated possession at any point in the first half. The game remained a 0-0 stalemate for much of the opening 45 minutes.
The Jumbos broke through in the 26th minute, when senior tri-captain Lindsay Garmirian took control of a failed clear attempt at the top of the box. Garmirian, who was knocked down by a Dragon defender just seconds before, snatched possession of the ball and deftly sent a low-hard ball past keeper Laura Morcone and into the back of the net to give Tufts the 1-0 lead.
The Jumbos stayed strong throughout the remainder of the half, working hard defensively to contain All-American sophomore Mary Velan. Velan, the Red Dragon’s main offensive threat, created several chances for her team, but Tufts senior Lydia Claudio stayed strong all afternoon at center midfield and denied the dangerous player a clean shot on the net.
As the second half rolled on, the Jumbos got complacent and Oneonta was able to take advantage. The Dragons dominated the game for much of the second half, but a combination of luck and great defense kept Tufts in the lead.
Sophomore defender Jessie Wagner and Garmirian both made game-saving plays in the net to preserve the shutout, getting their bodies between the ball and the goal to cover for a charging Ross.
Oneonta earned a free kick on a questionable call on the left side of the pitch in the 77th minute. Senior Colleen Wolbert took the free kick, sending a perfect cross to freshman Christine Marra, who headed it into the back of the goal to tie the game at one.
Both teams fought hard through the final ten minutes of play and through the two overtime sessions, but neither could put the ball in the net. Tufts senior tri-captain Ariel Samuelson had the best opportunity for either team in the two overtimes, as she took control of the ball and flicked a shot at the crossbar that Morcone barely got a hand on.
Two scoreless overtime sessions set the stage for penalty kicks. After senior tri-captain Sarah Callaghan, sophomore Joelle Emery and junior Kim Harrington sank their shots and Oneonta followed suit, Garmirian stepped up to the box.
The Amherst, Mass. native ripped a low shot past Morcone to put Tufts up 4-3. Marra was faced with the opportunity to even things up for the Red Dragons with her second ace of the day, but the freshman chipped a high ball wide to the right of the goal. Claudio, Tufts’ best penalty kicker, stepped up to the ball with a chance to clinch the win for the Jumbos, but Morcone held her ground and delivered a rare penalty kick save.
The 4-3 Tufts lead set the stage for the final shot, with the Dragon season depending on the leg of senior Sarah Tauber. The defender couldn’t get past Ross, and Tufts took the victory.
The Jumbos’ matchup against the Red Dragons was set up in dramatic fashion, as the team ripped off a five-goal second-half comeback to overcome the Wheaton Lyons on Saturday afternoon to claim the New England Regional Championship.
Down 2-0 going into halftime in a surprisingly even game, Whiting had some inspirational words for her team.
“I told them ‘You’re not going to quit. If I see your head hanging or if I’ve seen you’ve given up, you’re going to be sitting on the bench next to me,'” Whiting said. “It became real in the second half that this could be the end of our season and we knew we weren’t going to let that happen.”
The NESCAC Coach of the Year’s words had the intended effect. Sparked by a header from Claudio on a free kick by sophomore Jess Wagner, the Jumbos scored five unanswered goals to crush the Lyons 5-2. Furtek, Samuelson and sophomore Lauren Fedore followed Claudio to give the Jumbos the victory.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Whiting said. “To score five goals in a soccer game is miraculous, to score five in a half against a team that’s been second in New England all year is over the top.”
After Furtek’s goal tied the game, the momentum shifted visibly and the Jumbos knew the game was theirs. Tufts scored three goals in the final 15 minutes to seal the game and the Regional Championship.
“You could see it in their play; they totally gave up and we just dominated the last 20 minutes of the half,” Claudio said.
Sameulson blew by the Wheaton defense and snuck one past sophomore keeper Stacey Kronenberg for the third goal. Nine minutes later, Fedore took a deflection off the foot of freshman Abby Werner and sent it past Kronenberg for the fourth. Samuelson finished the job on a pass through the defense from Claudio to complete the blowout.
“There is no team that’s more fun to beat like that than Wheaton,” Samuelson said. “They always slide through somehow and they’re an overrated team, and to show that they’re overrated like that is awesome.”
With the wins, the Jumbos will now book their tickets to North Carolina to face off against the The College of New Jersey on Friday afternoon in a rematch of the 2000 NCAA National Title game. The winner of the contest will take on the winner of Messiah and Chicago in the Championship on Saturday.
“This is honestly the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” Samuelson said. “I’m so happy to go to the Final Four, but also just to be able to keep playing soccer.”