Jumbos suffer first conference loss, stay atop the NESCAC with one game left

Tufts midfielder Jake Gillespie (LA '16) tries to evade an opponent in the game against the Bates Bobcats on Tuesday, April 19. Evan Sayles / The Tufts Daily Archive

The men’s lacrosse team had an eventful week, playing three conference games against Wesleyan, Bates and Amherst. Tufts hosted Amherst, its biggest rival in the NESCAC, on April 16Tied for second in the conference with Bowdoin at 7-2, Amherst was one of Tufts’ strongest opponents in the season so far, but the hosts held out to win by a solid 16-11 margin. However, the Jumbos lost to the Bates Bobcats in double overtime last Wednesday, 19-18, receiving their first conference loss of the season. Bouncing back on Saturday, the Jumbos managed to overturn an early deficit to defeat the Wesleyan Cardinals 13-12.

Against Wesleyan, senior Connor Helfrich dominated at the face-off position, winning 24 of 28 face-offs. Despite gaining possession of the ball at the beginning of most face-offs, the Jumbos struggled to convert attack possession into goals for the first 45 minutes. The Cardinals played high pressure throughout, forcing the Jumbos to make avoidable errors in their attack that led to turnover after turnover. Wesleyan went up a goal early on, but senior Kyle Howard-Johnson was able to respond. A face-off win for Tufts brought the ball into their attack, but Wesleyan goalie senior Ted Bergman, managed to save every shot. Six minutes went by with neither team managing to find the net, but eventually the Cardinals got a man-up opportunity and were able to score. As the first quarter ended, the Jumbos were desperate to equalize the score. Senior Jake Gillespie was their saving grace, as he found the net from straight down the middle of the field with 44 seconds left in the quarter to tie the game 2-2.

The second quarter opened with Helfrich winning yet another face-off, his sixth consecutive win at that point. However, a strong check turned the ball over to the Cardinals, who quickly brought the ball into their attack and scored off a deflection. Wesleyan repeated the feat again, with Helfrich winning the next face-off, Tufts turning over the ball and Wesleyan scoring. With the score 4-2 in Wesleyan’s favor, Gillespie scored a goal identical to his first to bring Tufts within one. Although the Cardinals quickly got one back, a serious defensive mistake allowed senior co-captain Ben Andreycak to score on an easy one-on-one to bring the score to 5-4. Senior co-captain John Uppgren scored again for the Jumbos later in the half, but the Cardinals answered with two more to give them a 7-5 lead going into the second half.

The third quarter saw Wesleyan outscore Tufts for the third period in a row, with senior Garrett Clarke scoring Tufts’ only goal while Wesleyan scored two to stay up 9-6. However, this was not for lack of trying; Uppgren had a shot go off a defender’s leg, while Howard-Johnson had a shot off the post. The Jumbos at times seemed desperate on the attack, throwing away many sound opportunities as they favored taking the shot at the first opportunity they had rather than waiting for a solid opening.

“I think [forcing the ball in the attack] is the usual reason for our shortcomings on offense,” Andreycak said. “We get outside of what everyone’s simple job is, and we try to do too much when things aren’t clicking. We definitely forced some plays, and there were some lapses in stick skills.”

The fourth quarter brought the turnaround that the Jumbos desperately needed to stay in the game. Andreycak, Uppgren, Howard-Johnson, Gillespie and junior Zach Richman contributed to a seven-goal Tufts run to give them their first lead of the game at 13-9, which they preserved until the end. Senior goalkeeper Alex Salazar played a big role in keeping the Jumbos in the game, making 15 total saves, with the crowd and his teammates not failing to acknowledge that. Although the Cardinals managed to score three late goals to come back within one, the Jumbos rode out the clock with 1:22 left to clinch the important win.

“I think we pride ourselves on getting those 50/50 balls and playing that hard no-stop style of lacrosse where we’re winning the ground balls and pushing the ball in transition,” Andreycak said. “It was something that we didn’t do a good job of early in the game, but we’re very grateful that we got tough in the fourth quarter.”

The Jumbos were not as lucky against the Bobcats last week, with a close game being pushed to double overtime. Bates got an early lead despite good slides from the defense, going up 2-0. Although the Jumbos were able to equalize with goals from Richman and Andreycak, they were playing catch-up again as the Bobcats scored two more. The remainder of the quarter saw the score tied up at 5-5, with Clarke scoring a behind-the-back goal off a feed from Gillespie, with Uppgren and Gillespie finding the net too.

The Bobcats were the first to score in the second quarter too, with a shot from distance putting them up 6-5. However, Howard-Johnson answered with an equally impressive shot to even up the score again. From that point on, the Jumbos began to steadily open up a lead into the second half. A goal from Richman, four from Gillespie and two from Andreycak had the Jumbos up 13-7 in the third quarter and made the game look promising. But the momentum shifted to the Bobcats, who were able come back to tie the score at 15-15 and later take the lead. Senior Conor Bilby kept Tufts in the game, with Richman also netting two to push the game to overtime with the score tied 18-18.

It was Salazar once again who shined during overtime, making four saves that gave the Jumbos a fighting chance. But he was eventually overcome, and the Bobcats came away with the 19-18 upset, handing the Jumbos their first conference loss of the season, marking the second consecutive season that they’ve been upset by the Bobcats in the regular season.

The victory over the Amherst Purple & White, avenging last season’s regular season loss, was a big win for the Jumbos. Amherst was 6-1 in conference play going into the match-up, but Tufts played an incredible first quarter to put Amherst in a hole that it could not come back from. Howard-Johnson, who favors shooting from distance, managed to net four goals — three of which were unassisted — within the first 10 minutes of the game. Uppgren also had two goals, both of which were crease rolls, highlighting a weak point in Amherst’s defense. To round out an eight-goal quarter, Gillespie and Andreycak each scored to bring the score to 8-1 as the Jumbos dominated the first 15 minutes of play.

“We strive for that perfect game, and that first quarter was as close as we’ve been all season to that perfect quarter,” Richman said. “Playing hard as a team will get us that perfect minute. Not worrying about who is scoring the goals, who’s getting the stops or who’s winning face-offs, just playing as a team for a full 60 minutes and competing hard will get us that full perfect game.”

Amherst came back strong, outscoring Tufts in the second and third quarters, but only by one-goal margins as the Jumbos were able to maintain their early lead. The first six minutes of the second quarter were scoreless, but after an Amherst defender was handed a 60-second penalty for an illegal body check, Andreycak made quick use of the man-up opportunity. This was followed by three quick goals from Amherst, but Uppgren and Richman quickly countered this, forcing an Amherst defender to literally slide into his own goal in a desperate attempt to save Richman’s shot after his initial fake left the goal wide open. The quarter ended with another goal from Richman, who slotted the ball in the narrow gap between the goalie and the right post, leaving the score at 12-6 at the half.

The rest of the game saw goals from Gillespie, Clarke and Uppgren. Although Amherst netted five in the second half, nothing could overturn the first quarter’s seven-goal deficit. The Jumbos came away with a decisive 16-11 victory.

“It’s important to start valuing the ball during the times we have a lead,” Gillespie said. “We weren’t necessarily happy with how we played in the second half because it was sloppy. It’s more important to keep things simpler; we got away from how we usually make that extra, easy pass, not trying to force a shot. That’s something we need to work on.”

The team now prepares for its final game of the regular season, a home matchup against Bowdoin, who is currently tied with Amherst for second in the NESCAC at 7-2. The Jumbos look to maintain possession of the first seed in the conference ahead of the NESCAC playoffs, with the action kicking off Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. on Bello Field.