Field hockey went to Middlebury and notched its biggest win of the season thus far on Saturday with a 2-1 upset over defending national champions and then-No. 3 Panthers. With the win, Tufts climbed the rankings to fifth nationally and moved to 5-1 in NESCAC play (9-1 overall) to remain tied with No. 2 Bowdoin atop the conference and in excellent position for the postseason.
Plenty of psychological factors were stacked against the Jumbos going into the match-up: they had not beaten the Panthers since 2013, and they hadn’t beaten the Panthers on their own turf since 2009; since that 2009 Jumbo win, the Panthers had won five of the seven match-ups prior to Saturday, including two decisive wins over the Jumbos last year; and perhaps most importantly, the Panthers boasted a 20-game home winning streak as they headed into the weekend.
“I think we used our losses to them last year and in previous years as fuel for the game this past weekend,” sophomore defender Issy Del Priore said. “Every player on our team stepped onto that field determined to win. We knew about their winning streak, [and] they’re defending national champions, so they were the team to beat. And we knew that we were capable of winning that game, and I think every player was confident in their abilities and their teammates’ abilities. We all knew that we could win that day, so we played like it.”
The Jumbos came into the game rested, having had almost a week between their previous game and the game at Middlebury. They used last week to specifically prepare for what would be their toughest challenge of the season so far, knowing that they would need to improve their efficiency at converting on their goal-scoring opportunities — which would be fewer — and would need to figure out how to stop Middlebury’s prolific offense.
Tufts’ defensive unit has been solid this year and seemed to have little trouble stepping up to the task of shutting down the Panthers’ junior forward Annie Leonard, the top scorer in the NESCAC.
“They kept [Leonard] in our defensive 25 for most of the game, so [senior co-captain defender] Nicole [Arata] and I made sure someone was marking her the whole game,” Del Priore said. “We knew if we could shut her down, we had a really good chance of winning.”
Coach Tina McDavitt Mattera drew up a strategy that countered the Panthers’ style of play well and the team won mostly by executing its game plan and having every player up and down the lineup do their job.
“Starting Thursday, we just had this really good feeling,” Arata said. “[Fellow senior co-captain] Dom[inique Zarrella] and I and the coaches talked about how we had a high-intensity, productive practice on Thursday, and then we came back out Friday and had another high-intensity practice. There was this general sense that we were well prepared for this game: we had watched a lot of film, we had our defensive strategy down and we talked about playing harder and playing smarter. So we came into the game with a lot of confidence.”
Tufts’ offense pressured early, earning two early penalty corners and narrowly missing a chance to open the scoring 22 minutes in when a tip from senior forward Annie Artz went just wide of the net.
Off of the missed shot, the Panthers quickly counterattacked and caught the Jumbos in transition, with Panthers sophomore Grace Jennings and junior Lauren Schweppe moving the ball upfield on a series of give-and-go’s. Jennings sent a cross from inside the circle back to Schweppe, who swept a shot under Jumbo sophomore goalie Emily Polinski for the game’s first score.
The rest of the first half saw even play from both sides and ended without any further scoring. But the Jumbos roared out in the second half and earned a penalty corner just after the 44-minute mark.
Artz inserted the corner to junior midfielder Erin Sanders — one of the team’s go-to shooters on corners, who has started to find her shooting touch again in recent weeks — and Sanders fired a long shot in to equalize.
“Erin has a rocket shot,” Artz said. “From film, we recognized her spot on the corner would be open, so we worked all week on the low slip to Erin, and she executed it perfectly. We knew we had to capitalize on every scoring opportunity, and Erin did a great job doing that.”
The Jumbos kept the pressure up over the next 13 minutes, getting off five more shots while preventing the Panthers from getting off a single shot. With 12 minutes left to play, junior forward Mary Travers broke loose and got a one-on-one chance against Middlebury goalie Emily Miller, and Miller was forced to take down Travers inside the circle to give the Jumbos a penalty stroke.
Junior midfielder Mary Kate Patton took the stroke and snuck a shot inside the left post to put the visitors up 2-1. The Jumbos then doubled down on defense and staved off a late penalty corner opportunity with three minutes to play to hold on for the upset.
“We were much more patient on defense in the [Middlebury] game,” Artz said. “All week in practice we worked on how we could play great team defense, which I think was a major key to our success.”
Tufts’ stellar defense — which ranks second in the NESCAC with just 0.68 goals allowed per game, behind Bowdoin — held a Middlebury offense that has averaged over 16 shots per game to just six shots on Saturday, only four of which were on goal. The Tufts defense also allowed just two penalty corners and when the game heated up in the second half, permitted just one Panthers shot.
The win not only provides the Jumbos with a significant late-season confidence boost but also makes earning an NCAA postseason tournament bid more likely.
Tufts remains tied with Bowdoin atop the conference with their face-off approaching in a few weeks. As long as Tufts wins the games it’s considered the favorite for — which include the next four games, three of which come against NESCAC teams — the team could lose to Bowdoin and still potentially earn a favorable NESCAC tournament seed and have a strong chance of either winning the NESCAC title and the automatic NCAA bid that comes with it, or if not, then at least earning an at-large bid.
The Jumbos have a packed weekend ahead of them as they travel to take on the Conn. College Camels on Saturday and then the Trinity Bantams on Sunday. Lowly Conn. College is 1-6 in conference play, though Trinity may prove a tougher foe as it sits at 4-2, tied with Middlebury for third place in the NESCAC. The Jumbos are still favored to win both games though, especially after this past weekend’s upset.
“I think this win sends a message to all the other teams in the NESCAC, and in Div. III field hockey as a whole, of what our team is capable of this year,” Del Priore said.