When the field of 64 was set in early November, Tufts was little more than an afterthought for title contender, as the bracket was littered with past national champions, All-Americans and long-tenured coaches. The Jumbos had won fewer NCAA tournament games than some teams had won NCAA titles. They had a head coach who was entering his fifth year with the program and making his first appearance in the NCAA tournament. They had only snuck into the tournament with an at-large bid.
But none of that mattered. In the NCAA tournament, all that matters is that for 90 minutes, a team plays better soccer than its opponent — and all through November and into December, nobody played better soccer than Tufts.
“Being underdogs fueled us, because there was nothing to lose,” senior midfielder Gus Santos said. “Whatever team we were playing were the favorites to win, and we kind of took this to our advantage, and going in we all had the faith we could do this. I know not a lot [of] people believed in us — there’s the Div. III boards that say certain things, and obviously all these other teams have their legacies, but it never really got to us; it never really sunk in that we [didn’t] have a chance.”
Now, after their miracle run through the NCAA tournament, punctuated by a 4-2 win over the Wheaton (Ill.) Thunder in the national championship game this past Saturday, following their 3-0 semi-final victory over the Ohio Wesleyan Battling Bishops the day before, the Jumbos can shed their underdog title and adopt a new mantle: best team in Div. III.
Despite rarely being favored in the tournament, Tufts made its title run look shockingly easy, never having to play extra time. However, the finals provided the teeth-grinding drama that was mostly absent from Tufts’ previous games.
Part of the difficulty for Tufts was that it was going up against a team that has arguably one of the most individually talented groups of offensive players that the squad has seen all season. The aptly named Golz brothers, Stephen, a junior, and Jordan, a senior, accumulated 21 and nine goals this season, respectively. They are joined by junior forward Marshall Hollingsworth, who tallied nine goals and eight assists this season en route to being named CCIW Player of the Year. One of Wheaton’s most talented goal-scorers isn’t even an offensive player; senior defender Noah Anthony was second on the team with 10 goals.
But according to first-year right back Matt Zinner, the team’s philosophy stayed the same.
“All year, our philosophy [was] to defend as a team, [with] all 11, so that starts with Max up top setting the press, through the midfield with Kayne, Rui and Halliday, and Brown and Gus out wide, and they really help protect us as a back four,” Zinner said. “It was the same strategy [Saturday].”
The Thunder’s offensive prowess was on display early too, as they immediately began to pressure the Jumbos. However, Tufts was equal to the challenge, as both teams spent the first several minutes knocking the ball back and forth, trying to gain control of the field.
“We knew from the beginning that they pressed equally as hard as we did,” Santos said. “That’s where we decided to sit in a little bit and let the game solve itself out. In the first 15 minutes it was truly just a battle of territory.”
The Jumbos also had to get adjusted to not playing with a lead right out of the gate; unlike their previous two games in which they scored go-ahead goals within the first two minutes, the Jumbos were forced to build up their attack and open up the field.
“When you’re playing with a lead, you can pretty much play more defensively,” sophomore forward Nathan Majumder said. “When it’s 0-0, we know you have to grind the game down. In the beginning of the game, it’s going to be knocking it back and forth, opening up the game a little bit, but then we knew once the game started to settle down, you have to settle in to your own style.”
Tufts and Wheaton both play similar styles of soccer — both teams attempt to play through the midfield and keep the ball on the ground, trying to link up with forwards around the box. While both teams were able to generate chances, it was Tufts that was able to convert first.
Off of a goal kick from sophomore keeper Scott Greenwood at the 27-minute mark, the Jumbos controlled the ball in Thunder territory. Senior co-captain forward Maxime Hoppenot held the ball up on the left sideline before playing it back to first-year midfielder Kevin Halliday. Halliday then hit Hoppenot, who released down the sideline immediately after he gave the ball up, executing a perfect lead pass. But as Hoppenot ran onto the ball he was taken down by a Wheaton defender, giving Tufts a dangerous free kick below the 18-yard mark from the left of the goal.
As he has done all year, junior midfielder Rui Pinhiero took the set piece and sent a low ball at the near post. Senior keeper Matt Paprocki got his hands on the ball, but deflected the ball right in front of the middle of the goal. Seeing the empty net, senior center back Peter Lee-Kramer slid in to knock the ball home, just beating a Wheaton defender to the spot.
“We took every chance we got, and kind of buried every chance we got,” Santos said.
The goal gave Tufts a 1-0 lead, but it was Wheaton that continued to build up better attacks, forcing Greenwood to make several diving saves to keep Wheaton off the board. Despite the pressure put on Greenwood and the defense, it was the Jumbos who struck again, this time in the 37th minute.
Off of a throw-in from Zinner, the Jumbos passed the ball around outside the 18-yard box on the right side of the field. Zinner ended up getting the ball back and taking two touches into the box. On his second touch, Zinner got tripped up by a Wheaton defender and was awarded a penalty kick (PK).
Majumder calmly stepped up to take the PK, and sent the ball into the lower left corner of the goal to give Tufts a 2-0 lead.
Zinner, who was coming off a goal in the semifinals of the tournament, has provided Tufts with a nice offensive spark from the back line all season after being inserted into the starting lineup.
“Coach is always giving me the confidence to go forward, and I try and link up off my other teammates as much as I can,” Zinner said.
After the goal, Tufts was able to hold off several more advances from Wheaton and enter the half up 2-0. However, the team knew the game was far from over.
“Going 2-0 into the second half, we basically said the next goal would determine how the game would potentially end,” Santos said. “If they scored one goal, we’d be in trouble, because they know how to impose. They have really dangerous guys.”
Exactly as they were hoping, though, it was the Jumbos that struck first, only five minutes out of halftime. Again, it was Hoppenot that put Tufts in a position to score, as he got the ball outside the 18 and made a beautiful cut to split two defenders and get one-on-one with the goalie. Hoppenot’s shot went right at Paprocki though, who knocked it out for a corner kick. On the ensuing corner, one of Wheaton’s defenders mistimed his leap and, as he came down, inadvertently hit the ball with his hand, giving Tufts a second PK.
This time it was Santos’ turn to take it, and he sent a rocket into the top right of the goal to give his team a whopping 3-0 lead that appeared to put the game out of reach. However, the Thunder offense, which had been threatening all game, finally started to find the holes in the Jumbos’ defense. Part of the improved attack came from Wheaton using its height advantage more by continually lobbing balls into the box over the top of Tufts’ defense.
“At the beginning of the game they really wanted to play on the ground, and it wasn’t really until they started to use their size and their physicality that they started to have more success,” Majumder said.
The strategy paid immediate dividends for Wheaton, as just four minutes after Santos’ goal Wheaton was awarded a PK after Jordan Golz was knocked to the ground in the box by Greenwood as Golz ran onto a long lob ball.
Greenwood guessed wrong on the ensuing PK, and Anthony gave his team its first goal of the game. The goal seemed to spark a fire in Wheaton, who then put Tufts on its heels for the next 20 minutes. Part of the difficulty for Tufts was not the initial balls into the box, which senior center backs Sam Williams and Lee-Kramer got their heads on, but instead the clearances, which would often barely make it outside the box, giving the Thunder several opportunities to get good looks on net before the Jumbos could set up on defense.
Tufts also fell into the trap of playing too conservatively, often frantically clearing balls out of its half instead of trying to play the ball back and build up an attack. That strategy came back to the bite them, when after several clears and resulting Wheaton pushes forward, Hollingsworth found a seam in the Tufts defense and sliced across the field to the left of the box before sending a beautiful low cross into the box.
Jordan Golz got a shot off that Greenwood stopped, but the rebound didn’t travel far, and there were far more white jerseys than blue jerseys, allowing Anthony to find the ball and tap it into a wide-open net to cut the lead to just one.
“I think we became too comfortable with the lead, and maybe too excited to think about any repercussions for sitting back a little bit more,” Santos said. “We got really excited, and that got the best of us, because they are a really good [opponent], and that kind of kept us on our toes a little bit, and I think that’s what also woke us up to reimpose ourselves and to stop sitting back.”
With the Jumbos suddenly in serious danger, they began to try to take advantage of the aggressive Thunder attack and created several counter opportunities.
“I think we were able to adjust pretty well,” Majumder said. “There was a little period where they had it in our end more, but that only opened them up for counter attack more. I was, and Maxime was, offsides a couple times, but once they started moving everybody into the box and playing balls in over and over, as soon as we got one we could break on, we got very good chances multiple times.”
Majumder and junior midfielder Jason Kayne came tantalizingly close to scoring an insurance goal with 15 minutes left to play when Kayne dribbled right past the defense and drew the goalie out before dishing to Majumder in the middle of the box, who took a difficult touch before sending the ball over what was a wide-open net. Luckily for Majumder, he did not have to wait long for redemption.
Only six minutes later, Halliday found Kayne in a very similar spot, and again Kayne brought the ball into the box on the left side and passed across the box to Majumder, who ran the ball down and deposited it in the corner of the net to give his team the safety goal they were waiting for.
“The first one that I put over, and then in my mind I was like ‘Oh my god, I could have just cost us this game,'” Majumder said. “That was going through my mind when he took it down the left side again, and when he played the ball across I was like ‘There’s no way I’m going to miss this one,’ and I just hit it without really thinking about it.”
For Tufts, and coach Josh Shapiro, the national title marks the culmination of four years of rebuilding a program that was rarely in the national Div. III soccer picture. Although Shapiro and the returning players will soon start preparing for next year, for members of the senior class, Shapiro’s first recruiting class, finishing their careers as national champions is more than they could have dreamed of four years ago.
“It’s surreal still,” Santos said. “Just to see everybody grow together as a team, and our class, [helping] to change the program from what it started as and what it has become — it gets really emotional sometimes. Seeing something change so drastically, and now obviously this is a picture perfect ending. It really couldn’t have ended any other way.”