Field hockey suffered its first loss of the season in a double-overtime battle against Amherst, losing 3-2 on Homecoming, before bouncing back the next day to shut out Hamilton 2-0. The Jumbos, now 8-1 overall and 4-1 in NESCAC play, drop into a four-way tie atop the conference, with six regular season games left to play.
The seventh-ranked Jumbos knew they were in for one of their toughest challenges of the season thus far when they welcomed the 10th-ranked Amherst Purple and White to Ounjian Field on Saturday. In recent years, the rivalry between the two teams has been fierce and evenly-matched. Amherst also handed Tufts its first loss of the season on Homecoming two years ago in a tight 2-1 contest.
The Jumbos jumped out to an early lead on Saturday when they earned a penalty corner just over five minutes in and, despite their struggles in recent weeks with converting on their numerous corner opportunities, managed to score. Sophomore forward Gigi Tutoni was in position for a rebound and slipped the ball back into the net for her seventh goal of the season, tying senior forward Annie Artz for the team lead.
Tufts controlled play for most of the first half, outshooting Amherst 5-3 and helping sophomore goalkeeper Emily Polinski by preventing the visitors from getting off any shots on goal.
The game started to heat up 15 minutes into the second half. The visitors put more pressure on what has been a lockdown Tufts defense this season and Amherst senior forward Sara Culhane notched her first goal of the game at the 50:22 mark to tie it up at 1-1.
The Jumbos responded just a few minutes later to retake the lead, as junior midfielder Mary Kate Patton threaded a ball into the circle to speedy first-year forward Rachel Hamilton, who quickly fired a shot past Purple and White first-year goalie Emilie Flamme came charging out to challenge her.
The visitors did not let Tufts run out the clock, as Culhane’s second goal forced a tie with just six minutes left in regulation, sending the game into overtime.
With play reduced to seven-on-seven, the first overtime period saw the field open up with much more space for both teams. Quicker possessions and faster ball movement resulted in more shots for both teams. Polinski and Flamme kept their respective teams in the game with two strong saves each in the first overtime period to maintain the deadlock.
In the second overtime period, Artz snuck a shot past Flamme and came within inches of ending the contest, but the ball clanged off the post.
In a rapid turn of events, Amherst recovered possession and counterattacked Tufts’ defense as it was still recovering into position. The Purple and White capitalized on their three-on-two advantage and threaded a pass through the defense to Culhane, who was able to beat a charging Polinski in a one-on-one and fire in the game-winning shot, putting Amherst up 3-2 and ending the contest.
“It was a breakdown on our defense … they got one girl ahead of us and we were all still recovering back, and it ended up being a one-v-one against the goalie,” junior midfielder Erin Sanders said. “We know that’s something we need to work on and we have this whole week before our next game at Middlebury to work on it.”
Specifically, Sanders cited better communication and recovering faster and more effectively as areas that the defense will be fine-tuning ahead of this weekend’s contest.
“In our formation, because we only have two main defenders, it’s really important for that opposite-side [midfielder] — whether it’s the left or right side — to drop back,” junior defender Ellexa Thomas added. “So going forward, [we’ll be] really working on that opposite [midfielder] doing the full swing [to get back into defensive position].”
Culhane received NESCAC Field Hockey Player of the Week honors for scoring six of Amherst’s eight goals and leading the Purple and White to a 3-0 record last weekend.
The game also saw the Jumbos’ five-game shutout streak end, as the defense conceded as many goals on Saturday (3) as it had all season.
“I would say one thing [that we could have done better] would be, when we got scored on, trying to keep our cool and stay calm,” Thomas said.
The loss was a tough one for the Jumbos to take, and not just because it was against one of their fiercest rivals and at home on Homecoming. The NCAA committee typically only awards one or two at-large bids for the NCAA tournament to NESCAC teams despite the fact that the NESCAC is generally the strongest conference in Div. III field hockey. There are currently six NESCAC teams ranked in the top 20 in the nation, including last year’s NCAA champion No. 3 Middlebury and last year’s runner-up No. 2 Bowdoin.
Unless Tufts runs the gauntlet and wins the NESCAC tournament to claim the automatic NCAA bid, the team will likely be vying for an at-large bid and may need to beat either Middlebury or Bowdoin — no small feat — to sufficiently impress the NCAA committee.
Despite the loss to Amherst, the Tufts quickly got back on track the next day against the Hamilton Continentals.
“Stepping off the field [after the Amherst game], we were absolutely just physically exhausted,” Sanders said. “But then we all knew that we needed our 100 percent best effort [the next day against Hamilton]. Our coach [Tina McDavitt Mattera] just told us, ‘look at the scoreboard, know how that feels — but also know that you’ve done your best, so use this to fuel you tomorrow.’”
The Jumbos certainly let that disappointment fuel them on Sunday, putting up two goals in the first half while limiting the visiting Continentals to just one shot. First-year Rachel Hamilton scored the game-winner just under 20 minutes in when she recovered a rebound near the post and flipped it over Hamilton sophomore goalie Julia Booth to the far corner for the score.
Hamilton leads all Jumbo first-years with three goals and has been a key contributor on offense, challenging opposing defenses with her speed. Her contributions are increasingly crucial for the team as senior co-captain forward Dominique Zarrella continues to recover from a back injury.
Sanders padded the Tufts lead five minutes later with another score, her second of the season. On a well-executed penalty corner play, senior co-captain defender Nicole Arata set Sanders up with a good feed that she then rocketed into the back of the net.
“I’ve been kind of stuck in a rut on my corners, but I’ve been practicing them a lot,” Sanders said. “I’ve been trying to aim for different places and the one place I found worked, so I’m hoping I can just get more now.”
Though Sanders has one of the strongest shots on the team and is one of Tufts’ go-to shooters on corner plays, she has struggled to find the back of the net this season. Sunday’s goal may fuel her confidence, and the Jumbos will need more strong shooting from her this weekend in a tough matchup at Middlebury.
The Hamilton game allowed Tufts to regain its momentum, with the defense turning in another shutout despite Hamilton’s concentrated attacks throughout the second half.
One area in which the team still needs improvement is in its finish, both Thomas and Sanders noted. The Jumbos have slightly improved on their ability to convert on corners and opportunities in front of the net this weekend, but they will have much fewer scoring opportunities in the weeks ahead.
Tufts will face Middlebury on Saturday, Trinity the following week and Bowdoin at the end of the month. All three teams are also currently 4-1 in NESCAC play and are tied with Tufts for the top spot in the conference.
Though Tufts goes into this weekend as an underdog, the game is definitely winnable — Middlebury recently lost to the same Hamilton team that Tufts handled this weekend. The Jumbos look to maintain their confidence and score an upset against the defending national champions on their own turf this Saturday at 1:30 p.m.