Top-ranked Jumbos embark on title defense

The Jumbos bring back many key components of last year's championship team, but plan on taking this season one day at a time. Caroline Geiling / The Tufts Daily

Coming off an NCAA Div. III national title a year ago, expectations are rightfully high for the men’s lacrosse team. The Jumbos’ season kicks off Saturday with a home game against the Middlebury Panthers, and with it begins the quest to repeat as champions.

Tufts begins the year as the No. 1 team in the country, as ranked by the Inside Lacrosse’s Face-Off Yearbook, and as the No. 2 team according to the United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association. The yearbook also lists four members of the Tufts team as preseason All-Americans. For coach Mike Daly and his players, however, the focus is neither on the past nor the preseason accolades the team has received.

“Those things mean something to other people, but they don’t mean anything to us,” Daly said of national rankings.

The emphasis, instead, is placed on the competition the Jumbos will face.

“Most importantly, we know that every one of our opponents got better this year and we need to improve in order to keep that leverage that we have on them,” Daly said. “It’s going to be an absolute grind.”

Daly urges the players to try to tune out the noise that comes with defending a championship. This season’s goals do not have anything to do with what happened last year. Instead, the players’ concentration is on the current team and the things they can control.

“Coach Daly says all the time to make everything smaller. It’s really not about the outside world’s opinion, it’s about the guys, the team and just working hard every day,” senior co-captain attackman Cole Bailey said. “A saying we have this year is ‘go undefeated everyday.’ We take pride in our work ethic and holding each other accountable.”

The team is currently focusing on short-term objectives. In order to reach the season-long aim of repeating, the team takes a very piece-by-piece approach. Right now, the only goal is the most imminent one: beating Middlebury on Saturday.

“What we talk about is elite attention to detail, elite attention to goals and winning every day,” junior defensive midfielder Sawyer Dew said. “The expectation that we have is to play Tufts lacrosse and to play our best lacrosse on Saturday.”

While a national championship trophy is obviously a great source of pride for the players, the coaches and the program, the team does not want to dwell on the past; with a new year comes a new team. About 10 seniors from last year’s team have graduated, and a new class of first-year players has arrived.

“It’s a new team, so it’s going to be a completely different season with new challenges for us to face, so all our focus is on this year,” junior attackman John Uppgren said.

According to Daly, it is not the responsibility of the players to worry about the roster turnover from year to year or even game to game. He wants the players to focus on winning each game while coaches consider roster changes.

“Every team is different. I don’t care if you remove one guy … one guy changes the complexion,” Daly said. “I think it’s definitely on the coaches to navigate those changes of complexion and changes in personalities.”

The team takes a next-man-up approach to the depth of the roster. The team is confident in each of the 50 players on the roster and their ability to fill any role necessary.

“Anyone can be called up to play at any time, so that forces everyone to be playing at their highest level. Coach Daly always says he has full confidence in us as players and that’s why he recruited us here: to get called up and to contribute,” Dew said.

“The great thing about this team is everyone on this roster is capable of stepping up, and I think the trust factor with everyone’s ability is there, and that carries over,” Bailey said.

Winners of five consecutive NESCAC championships and two national titles in 2010 and 2014, the Jumbos have developed a top-flight program under coach Daly. The run of conference titles is meaningful given the high quality of opposition that the Jumbos face within the NESCAC.

“We have so much respect and we are so lucky to play in this conference because every single team is so talented and has the ability to beat anyone at any point,” Dew said. “We do not take any opponent for granted, we believe that every day we need to come out as hungry as ever in order to be successful.”

The mentality and talent of the players and coaches has led to sustained success. Bailey was named Lacrosse Magazine’s Div. III preseason player of the year, and he and Uppgren are two of the 13 first-team All-Americans listed by Inside Lacrosse. Senior attackman Chris Schoenhut made the third team and junior face-off specialist Conor Helfrich was an honorable mention. The 423 goals scored by the Jumbos a season ago were the most scored by any team in NCAA history, regardless of division.

Along with the acclaim and trophies comes an extra ounce of motivation for opponents. Everyone wants to take down the champions, so the Jumbos are going to get every team’s best shot.

“I think we have huge targets on our back … everyone gets up for that Tufts game just because we’ve had success in the NESCAC in the last five years. That’s the challenge, just making sure our team is mentally focused for every game,” Bailey said.

According to Uppgren, this can help motivate the Jumbos as well.

“All it means really is just that we have to work that much harder, make sure our preparation is locked down for every game,” Uppgren said.

Dew says they look forward to facing opponents at the tops of their games.

“We expect teams to give us incredibly difficult games and we’re excited for that opportunity,” Dew said.

As the Jumbos embark on their title defense, the focus is not on the events of last May, when they brought home the national title, nor is it on this coming May, when they hope to earn another trophy. The quest to become repeat national champions is an arduous one to be undertaken day by day and game by game.

“I love playing for Tufts lacrosse because we’re nobodies from nowhere, and we may be defending champs but in our minds we’re just as hungry to win game one,” Dew said. “We’re not worried about the national championship. We are focusing on short-term goals that can help us get there.”