Tufts falls to top-ranked Bowdoin in NESCAC semifinals

Junior forward Hannah Park tracks after the ball during a 4-0 win over Wesleyan on Bello Field. Christie Wu / The Tufts Daily

The Tufts field hockey team had a chance to be a great Cinderella story, one about unexpectedly taking down the perennial favorite on its own turf in a dramatic postseason run to the Championship. Unfortunately, that was not the story that prevailed when the final whistle blew Saturday afternoon on a chilly Ryan Field in Brunswick, Maine.

Tufts fell to the host, Bowdoin, in a tough 2-1 loss in which Tufts, the NESCAC’s No. 5 seed, gave the defending national champions a run for their money in semifinal play. Tufts looked nothing but impressive in the matchup, becoming just the third team to lead Bowdoin at any point in a game all season and stifling one of the nation’s top offenses with a career-high 13 saves from senior co-captain goalkeeper Brianna Keenan.

With the win, the Polar Bears advanced to their fifth consecutive conference championship game, but failed to pick up their seventh title in ten years with a 2-1 loss to Middlebury on Sunday. The Jumbos, meanwhile, await the announcement of the field for the NCAA tournament later this month, to which they hope to receive an at-large bid.

The team was ranked eighth in the country going into Saturday’s matchup, and the NESCAC generally sends at least three teams to the tournament, so the Jumbos still have a strong possibility of receiving a bid.

“It was a really hard loss for us,” Keenan said. “We went into that game knowing that we had a chance at winning it, and with really high hopes. I thought that we played really well, and everyone on the team played their hearts out.”

The history between the two teams going into the game ran deep. Bowdoin and Tufts, the last two NCAA champions, have been at the top of the NESCAC for much of the last decade, and have carried on a bitter rivalry. The Polar Bears, however, were 6-0 against the Jumbos in all-time NESCAC tournament play going into the weekend, and had just steamrolled the Jumbos 4-0 the week before in the final game of the regular season.

But Tufts learned from that loss, and after getting revenge against Amherst in the quarterfinals, got off to a strong start in the game against Bowdoin. The Jumbo attack immediately put pressure on what has been a staunch Polar Bear defense this season, a defense that had only given up six goals through 16 games.

That early pressure paid off just 2:50 into the match on the game’s first penalty corner, during which junior midfielder Dakota Sikes-Keilp received the ball off of a give-and-go in the circle and hammered it home to do something that only two other teams this season have done: take the lead against the high-powered Polar Bears.

Though they did not score again, the Jumbos kept the pressure on throughout the first half and kept the Polar Bears in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable position. It looked as if Bowdoin might tie the game when the team earned a penalty stroke after Sikes-Keilp’s goal, but Keenan denied Bowdoin junior Rachel Kennedy, the NESCAC’s leading scorer.

“We played them previously, and we were able to pinpoint their top offenders,” senior defender Colleen Golja said. “Obviously Rachel Kennedy was one of their leading scorers, so we worked really hard to deny her the ball, block out passes, that was really effective for us.”

Both teams traded scoring opportunities for the remainder of the half, but the Jumbos managed to go into the first whistle still up 1-0.

“We came out in the game really strong, and that kind of took them off guard, because we were so determined to win, so determined to just go after them and play attack,” said Keenan. “And I think they obviously made the necessary adjustments [in the] second half, which we couldn’t quite keep up with.”

Bowdoin made those adjustments quickly and responded early in the second half. The Polar Bears earned another penalty stroke a minute and a half after the restart, and this time Bowdoin’s Colleen Finnerty slipped it past Keenan for the score.

Tufts was mostly able to handle the renewed Bowdoin onslaught, but in the 50th minute Mettler Growney notched Bowdoin’s second goal. The Jumbos had the Polar Bears’ attackers covered, but Growney fired a hard ball with an unusual spin that bounced off sticks and legs into the back of the net.

With 20 minutes remaining, both teams kept battling, as the Jumbos refused to concede with just a one goal deficit. Tufts’ defense, anchored by Keenan in net, kept the team in the game and continued to deny Bowdoin’s attempts.

It seemed as if the Polar Bears might secure the win when they earned a third penalty stroke with under five minutes to play, but once again Keenan came up with a big save and denied Kennedy for the second time.

In dramatic fashion, the Jumbos earned a penalty corner just before the final whistle, but they were unable to capitalize on their final scoring opportunity as time expired, and the Polar Bears celebrated their narrow victory.

“I don’t think there’s anything more we could have done,” Golja said. “I think everyone played their best. The defense had goal line saves, and the offense was getting shots off. We [even] put an extra forward in for the last five minutes. They’re a good team, and we’re a good team, and it was a tight game that could have gone either way.”

Despite the loss, such an impressive performance against arguably the best team in the nation bodes well should the Jumbos compete in the NCAA tournament later this month. Sikes-Keilp, the team’s leading scorer from last season who didn’t notch her first marker this year until midway through the season, now has five goals and has become another potent offensive threat alongside sophomore forwards Dominique Zarrella and Annie Artz.

Keenan has been a stalwart in the cage all season long, ending her NESCAC career with the 13 saves, including two of three opponents’ penalty strokes.

“It sucks to end your career, and I’m still pretty upset about that, but it was nice to have such a good game,” said Keenan. “I just wanted to do everything I could to keep our team in it, give us the best chance we had at winning, and my teammates were there for me every minute of the game. Those two penalty strokes came because my defenders were doing everything they could to keep the ball out of the cage, which is awesome and I love them for that.”

Keenan, Golja and fellow senior co-captain Brittany Norfleet certainly hope this won’t be the end of their season. With Bowdoin losing in the NESCAC Championship game, clearly no team is invulnerable. The Jumbos could easily find themselves deep in the NCAA tournament in a matter of weeks, where they would look to get back at the Polar Bears and perhaps a few other NESCAC rivals.