Tufts field hockey enters the postseason this weekend sitting in the driver’s seat after closing out the last week of the regular season with three wins and clinching the top seed in the NESCAC with an 8-2 conference record (13-2 overall). Tufts, which improved to third overall in the latest national poll, easily handled Gordon in a 6-0 win on Oct. 20 before edging out No. 20 Williams 3-2 on Saturday and No. 4 Bowdoin 1-0 on Wednesday night.
The Bowdoin win was one of the season’s biggest for Tufts, as the team hadn’t beaten the perennial field hockey powerhouse and four-time national champions since 2013 and hadn’t won at Bowdoin since 2009. The Polar Bears, despite spending the first half of the season ranked first in the nation, have been reeling recently after stumbling in consecutive games on Oct. 15 and 16 against the Hamilton Continentals and the Williams Ephs for their second and third losses of the season. The last time Bowdoin lost back-to-back games was in 2009, which was also the last season when Bowdoin lost four or more games in a season.
The Jumbos traveled to Brunswick, Maine on Wednesday night with momentum and confidence, knowing that they had already beaten the three other teams that had beaten the Polar Bears this season: the Middlebury Panthers, the Continentals and the Ephs. The game opened with Bowdoin dominating play and challenging Tufts’ defense early, with five shots and two penalty corners in just the first eight-plus minutes before Tufts had a real offensive possession of its own.
The Jumbo defense ranks second in the NESCAC, just behind the Polar Bears, who have let up only 11 goals over 15 games for a 0.79 goals against per game average. Tufts has been almost as strong all season, allowing 12 goals in as many games and preventing opponents from getting shots off. This is especially due to renewed focus, in the second half of the season, on forwards and midfielders dropping back to help.
The prolific Polar Bear offense peppered the Jumbo net with shots, and it was mostly the strong play of sophomore goalkeeper Emily Polinski that kept the hosts off the board. Polinski tallied five saves in the first half as Bowdoin got off 12 shots and earned 11 penalty corners.
“I think we came out on our heels a bit and gave up some easy corners in the first half, but the girls were just so determined to win last night [that] every time [Bowdoin] had a corner, they were just like ‘we’re getting this out,’” coach Tina McDavitt-Mattera said. “I think our mentality was great and that they were ready to battle, and when we had the opportunity to score, we did. It was just a great team effort.”
The Jumbos’ opportunity to score came 15 minutes into the second half when first-year midfielder Marguerite Salamone dribbled down to the endline on the left side and then cut in towards the post, found an angle as Polar Bear senior goalkeeper Clara Belitz dove to make the save and slipped her shot in for the game’s lone score. Salamone had previously scored the first goal of her collegiate career against Gordon in a less-than-competitive 6-0 win, but her first ever NESCAC goal came when her team needed it the most.
“[Salamone’s] such a talented player and she’s the only freshman that’s starting right now, and she’s really earned that spot and stepped up,” McDavitt-Mattera said. “She’s just getting better and better and better, every day, every practice, every game, so I wasn’t surprised. She’s had scoring opportunities before, and she scored against Gordon, so I think she’s really coming into her own.”
After the score, Bowdoin continued pressuring Tufts’ defense, earning eight corners and getting off seven shots in the final ten minutes of game time alone. The frantic final ten minutes were particularly nerve-racking for the Jumbos — the Polar Bears earned a corner with just five seconds left on the clock and then went on to earn three more corners after time expired, as the ball kept hitting the feet of Jumbo defenders. On the fourth such corner, Bowdoin sophomore forward Elizabeth Bennewitz, who pounded Polinski and Tufts’ defense with 13 shots throughout the game, fired a shot in from outside the circle that went in, but the goal was called off because no Bowdoin player got a stick on it inside the circle and the game ended 1-0 in favor of Tufts.
“We knew that we had been so successful that entire game in that same situation, and we practice penalty corners every single practice, so we knew we were prepared,” Polinski said. “It was just a matter of doing what we had to do and trying to clear the ball away.”
The hosts garnered more scoring opportunities than the Jumbos, as the Polar Bears outshot the Jumbos 20-5 and earned 20 corners to the Jumbos’ three, while dominating time of possession. Still, Tufts’ defense managed to fend off Bowdoin’s attacks, while Polinski came away with six saves and her eighth shutout of the season.
“I was really happy with my performance overall because I played the way I knew I could play,” Polinski said. “But I was more impressed with the way we played as a team — especially our defensive penalty corner unit really helped me out.”
Over the weekend, the Jumbos earned another hard-fought NESCAC win when they hosted the Williams Ephs on a wet and cold Senior Day. Before the game, the team honored senior co-captains Dominique Zarrella and Nicole Arata and fellow senior Annie Artz. Tufts Athletics also held a dedication ceremony for Ounjian Field, which just opened for play in September.
Despite hard rain pouring down for most of the first half, Tufts got off to a strong start with junior midfielder Erin Sanders scoring just six and a half minutes in when she rocketed a shot in on a penalty corner. After controlling play for most of the half, junior forward Mary Travers scored near the end of the period when Arata’s shot was deflected and she pushed the rebound back into the left corner. The Jumbos finished the half with an 8-1 advantage in shots and a 3-0 lead in penalty corners.
The torrential downpour that began during halftime and continued into the start of the second half soaked the field, and play was paused after a few minutes when the corners started to flood. Both teams went back into the locker room for a 45-minute delay as a facilities crew pumped the water off.
When play resumed, the momentum had clearly shifted, and Williams quickly scored to narrow the lead. The Jumbos built the lead back to two when an Eph stopped a shot from Sanders on the goal line with her foot, and junior midfielder Mary Kate Patton slipped the penalty stroke in for the score.
The visitors again responded, scoring with under 15 minutes to play and putting Tufts on the defensive for the end of the game. The Jumbos were able to run out the clock, though, and strong defensive play from Arata, junior Ellexa Thomas and sophomore Issy Del Priore kept the score at 3-2 until the final whistle.
“I think the delay was killer,” McDavitt-Mattera said. “We were so focused and in the zone and ready, and having that be a distraction and having to come inside and be in the locker room, and [with it being] wet and cold, and then having to get back out there — that was definitely a factor. But I was pretty proud of the girls, I thought Williams was a really strong team, so we came out to battle them and we held on.”
Tufts also played a non-conference game against Gordon on Oct. 20. Gordon was unable to put up much of a fight against the No. 3 team in the nation, and the game was more of an opportunity for many of Tufts’ bench players to get significant playing time.
The Jumbos put on a shooting clinic with 36 shots, 25 of them on goal. Six Jumbos scored: Patton, Artz, Travers, Salamone, first-year forward Shannon Yogerst and junior midfielder Sarah Schaeffler. The strong Tufts defense completely blanked Gordon, not allowing them to get a single shot off.
With the win over Bowdoin, Tufts clinched the No. 1 seed in the NESCAC tournament, meaning the team will play No. 8 seed Bates tomorrow at 1:00 p.m. on Ounjian Field. The Jumbos beat the Bobcats 2-0 in their home openers and if they come out focused and play like they have this past week, they should be able to handle the visitors. With a win, the Jumbos would host the semifinal and final rounds next weekend at Tufts and would almost certainly earn a bid to the NCAA tournament.