Strong returning core looks to bounce back from last year

Tufts men's soccer defeats Bowdoin 1-0 in the 81st minute on October 29, 2013 securing them the fourth seed for the NESCAC Championship tournament. Kyra Sturgill / The Tufts Daily

Since head coach Josh Shapiro took over the men’s soccer program in 2011, success was immediate and improvement became expected. In his first season as head coach, Shapiro took a sub-.500 team and quickly turned it into a NESCAC competitor. He led Tufts to a 5-3-2 conference record, finishing 10 minutes away from advancing to the conference-semifinals before Williams scored two late goals to steal a 2-1 victory in the quarterfinals.

The following year, bolstered by a new influx of Shapiro recruits, the Jumbos continued their upward climb, finishing 5-2-3 in the conference and advancing the conference-semifinals where the Ephs once again played the spoiler, this time ending the Jumbos run in penalty kicks. Despite the loss, the Jumbos were awarded an NCAA tournament berth for the first time since 1996, a true testament to the improvement of the team. 

With so much success in the first two years of Shapiro’s tenure and a high return rate of key players, expectations were higher than ever last year. The Jumbos failed to make it back to the semifinals in the NESCAC tournament or the NCAA tournament last season, however.

 “After a few key injuries at times and just a little bit of bad luck at times, we weren’t able to get ourselves back in that same position,” Shapiro said. “It was a good year, but it was a little bit disappointing at the same time … It means our expectations are higher, which means we’re going in the right direction as a program, but also you’ve got to find a way to progress.”

The team saw the failure as both a step back and a learning opportunity.

“Last year, we unfortunately weren’t able to make it to the tournament, and looking at the result may be a little disappointing, but in terms of what we learned from [last season], we learned … that the really good teams could really win in tough situations,” senior midfielder Kento Nakamura said.

The Jumbos look like a strong bet to join the best of the NESCAC this season despite last year’s setback, as they return almost their entire core. Tufts will only be losing two players that played in 10 or more games, forward Scott Blumenthal (LA ’14) and defender Ben Ewing (LA ’14). Of the other top three teams in the NESCAC last year, only Amherst is close to that number, losing three key seniors, while Wesleyan is losing seven, and Williams is losing five. 

What the Jumbos do bring back is talent, and lots of it. Senior co-captain forward Maxime Hoppenot was a first team All-Conference selection, after scoring six goals and 14 points, while former NESCAC Rookie of the Year, senior forward Gus Santos, should return to form after dealing with a slew of injuries and illnesses the past two years.

Supplementing the dynamic duo upfront will be junior super-sub Tal Smith, who was second on the team in points in his first year at Tufts after transferring from Howard University. With Hoppenot and Santos leading the charge up front for their fourth straight year, Tufts will also benefit from a deadly combination of experience and talent.

In the middle, the Jumbos will bring back a number of experienced and talented players, which is essential in a league like the NESCAC where ball control is premium. Seniors Kyle Volpe and Nakamura and juniors Jason Kayne, Rui Pinhiero and Connor Brown will certainly see a lot of time in the middle, while it is up to Shapiro to figure out how to use sophomores Zach Halliday and Nathan Majumder most effectively.

In the back, despite losing Ewing, the Jumbos will still return a strong group of players, including second team All-Conference senior co-captain Sam Williams, junior Connor Schaible and sophomore Monil Patel. Tufts will also see senior defender Peter Lee-Kramer on the field for the first time in a year, after an MCL injury kept him out all year. 

Finally, the goalie position appears to be locked down by sophomore Scott Greenwood, who started 13 games last year, and helped lead Tufts to a stellar .640 goals-against-average, good for second in the league.

With so many returning starters and contributors and a strong incoming freshmen class, the Jumbos biggest strength is their depth, according to Nakamura.

“Anyone really deserves to be on the field,” Nakamura said. “Each player is competing for a spot every single week… and we not only have a great group of players, but a great group of guys.”

It will be up to Shapiro, who has never had as much talent at his disposal as he has this year, to find the right mix of players. If he can do that, Tufts could be looking at its best year yet. 

“At the end of the day, it has to be the 11 guys on the field and the 25 guys total all supporting each other, all working really hard and pushing each other every day that is going to help drive those results,” Shapiro said.