For 71 minutes on Saturday, the women’s soccer team looked to be on the verge of something miraculous. After struggling early on in the season, the Jumbos found themselves needing two wins in their final two games against a pair of top?five NESCAC teams in order to even have a chance of making the conference tournament.
Tufts came into the final stretch in good form, having lost just one of its prior four games. The team pounded Hamilton into submission, 4?0, on Saturday, and then jumped out to a lead within the first minute on Tuesday at home against Bowdoin.
But in the end, it wasn’t meant to be. Bowdoin freshman Kiersten Turner, after being stopped by junior keeper Kristin Wright twice in the first half, pounced on a loose ball in the box, putting it away to level the score in the 72nd minute. The Jumbos were 18 minutes away from a win and a sixth seed in the NESCAC tournament. Instead, they were forced to settle for a draw and a 10th place finish that ended their season.
“The last game was definitely very frustrating because we had turned our season around … and in the last seven games we only lost one,” senior tri?captain Rachel Aronchick said. “Having it end right there, especially with a tie – not even a loss – was really tough. But I was really proud of how the entire team came together and turned it around for the second half of our season.”
It took just 35 seconds for the Jumbos to get on the board against the Polar Bears. Sophomore midfielder Carla Kruyff chipped a ball over the Bowdoin defense, allowing freshman Allie Weiller to get the end of it and slot it home for her fifth goal of the season, all in the past six games.
“It’s awesome, especially with so many players out with injuries to have somebody so young step up and make such an impression on the team,” Aronchick said of Weiller. “Going into next year, to have somebody that has the experience to play up top and scoring goals is really important.”
After the goal, Tufts never considered going into a defensive shell. Instead, they controlled the game for the remainder of the half, taking five shots to Bowdoin’s three and earning all three corners in the opening 45 minutes.
Despite the Jumbos’ strong play, it was actually the Polar Bears that had the best opportunity before halftime. Turner found herself in behind the defense, but Wright made a diving save, preserving the lead.
In the second half, the Polar Bears came out fighting, despite being locked into the No. 4 seed with little more to play for than pride. Turner fired off multiple warning shots early, once again breaking away only for Wright to make a big play. She then found herself in space again, but fired high of goal.
Finally, in the 72nd minute, Turner was rewarded for her efforts. The goal was just the third allowed by Tufts this month, and only the second game in the team’s last seven in which the Jumbos’ defense conceded a goal.
“It was tough because we came out so early and got a goal in the first 35 seconds, so for them to come back and even it back up again put a lot more pressure on us,” Aronchick said. “And especially because they weren’t really playing for anything – they already had home?field advantage, and they knew that they were going to make the tournament, so to have to get another goal to reach the tournament put a lot more pressure on us for the rest of the game.”
With the game tied, and Tufts needing a win to make the tournament, coach Martha Whiting altered the team’s tactics to allow them to push even more aggressively for the game?winning goal.
“We got a lot more attacking?minded later in the game, moving [sophomore] Catharine [Greer] up front, since Catherine has the ability to bring the pressure, put pressure on their backs,” Aronchick said.
The tactical change led to a rough first overtime for the Jumbos, with the Polar Bears forcing Wright into three saves. But in the second overtime, with Bowdoin tiring, Tufts finally had its chance to save its season. But shots by Weiller and Greer were both held tightly by the Polar Bear’s keeper, and time simply ran out.
Despite the disappointing ending, there were plenty of positives to take from a second half of the season in which Tufts outscored opponents 12?4 over the course of six games. The highlight was the thrashing of Hamilton, the first time the Jumbos have scored four goals in a conference game since 2007.
“There was just like a fire, everyone was playing for our seniors, and we wanted our seniors to have that day they could remember for the rest of their lives,” Weiller said. “I know I’m a freshman and I’ll still remember that for the rest of my life, and I can’t imagine being a senior and having that.”
But despite all of their successful results late in the season, both Weiller and Aronchick credit a 2?0 loss to Amherst on Sept. 29 as the turning point. In that game, Tufts played one of its best halves of the season before being undone by an own goal.
“Hearing your coach say that to you at halftime, saying that ‘you guys are doing so well, keep doing what you’re doing,’ it really helps you understand, ‘we can do this, we are this good, we can beat any team we play,'” Weiller said.
From there, it was a different team going out on the pitch each week.
“I think we just realized that we were a good team, and we could beat all of these teams, and compete with all of the teams in the NESCAC,” Aronchick said. “It just took a few goals for us to realize that we believed in ourselves, and once we got started we just didn’t look back.”
Coming off their worst conference finish since the formation of the NESCAC, some might expect them to go into the 2013 season discouraged. But thanks to their finish, the Jumbos will be carrying plenty of momentum into the future.
“I feel like everyone’s definitely going to have their moment and play their part, and knowing that we had that great run in the second half of the season will translate so well into next season,” Weiller said. “We really have something to prove and we really have that fire going into the season, which is hard to get as a new team, so having it coming into the season is really nice.”