Tufts defeated the Bates Bobcats 2-0 at home in NESCAC quarterfinal action this past Saturday and will host the semifinals and finals this weekend at Ounjian Field, as Tufts looks to win its first NESCAC title since 2009.
Tufts entered the quarterfinal round ranked third in the nation and seeded first in the NESCAC tournament. Their opponent was a solid but unranked and eighth-seeded Bates team. In their home opener, the Jumbos thwarted the Bobcats 2-0 back in September and repeated the feat again on Saturday, with the game going much the same way.
The Bobcats came out strong before the Jumbos settled in, dominating possession in the first 10 minutes and keeping the ball in the Jumbos’ half. Bates earned a pair of penalty corners and got off three shots in that early push, but Tufts’ defense, which ranks first in the NESCAC in goals allowed and goals against per game, kept the game scoreless.
“I think we were maybe a little nervous going into postseason, and we didn’t come out with the confidence that we normally play with,” junior forward Mary Travers said.
The Jumbos pulled the momentum back to their side and pressured the Bobcats defense for much of the first half, earning six corners and getting off nine shots in the rest of the period. Strong play from Bates sophomore goalkeeper Adelae Durand frustrated Tufts shooters and they struggled to capitalize on corners.
With under two minutes remaining in the half, the Jumbos broke through and converted on their sixth corner. Travers inserted to junior midfielder Celia Lewis, who made a touch to line up her angle and then fired toward the left post where Travers was set up to deflect it past Durand for the score.
The score was something the Jumbos had worked on in practice.
“We had scouted Bates really well, and [coach] Tina McDavitt Mattera texted [Lewis and I] a couple nights before the game saying, ‘you know, I think a direct is gonna be on, Mary [Travers is] gonna be open at the post,’” Travers said. “And we actually went out Friday [30 minutes before practice] and literally practiced direct shots to my post, [Lewis] taking shots and me tipping it in. So we got in the huddle [before the corner], [Lewis] was really confident because she’d had those extra reps, she knew going in that she [had] this and that I [was] on the post with her. Obviously it was great to score because it was a tie game and we wanted to go up, but it was also such a tangible difference, seeing the work we’d put in [materialize like that].”
Senior co-captain forward Dominique Zarrella also noted a team shift in mentality with the score on that corner that they did not always have during all of their scoring opportunities and which they have frequently struggled with this season.
“I think it just comes down to a mindset,” Zarrella said. “On [Travers’] goal with [Lewis], in the huddle beforehand it was just like, ‘we’re scoring.’ So I think it’s just getting everyone into that same mindset because that’s really what it comes down to.”
The Bobcats’ best chance to equalize came right before the whistle for halftime when they got an open shot on goal, but Tufts sophomore goalkeeper Emily Polinski made a diving save to preserve her team’s lead.
The second half saw Tufts turn up the pressure, but Bates also got fiercer as it faced elimination. Senior forward Annie Artz added an insurance goal with four minutes remaining to ice the game, forcing her way into the circle and then spinning and firing near post to sneak one past Durand.
The Jumbos won the stats line battle, getting off 23 shots and earning 12 corners to the Bobcats’ six shots and three corners. Durand was impressive in goal for Bates despite the loss, finishing with nine saves, while Polinski finished with four for Tufts.
Though they got the job done as expected, McDavitt-Mattera and the team were not entirely pleased with their performance. The Jumbos’ nagging, season-long difficulty with converting on scoring opportunities resurfaced and they did not completely put away the unranked Bobcats, as one might expect from a team with NCAA title aspirations.
Zarrella pointed to a departure from the team’s basic game plan as one factor of last weekend.
“I think we just need to focus on working better together and simplifying our game, bringing it back to the basics,” Zarrella said. “So just focusing on how to play your best game instead of getting caught up in trying to do too much.”
Tufts is still the favorite to win the NESCAC title, having already beaten every team remaining in the tournament earlier this season.
The Jumbos play host to the seventh-seeded Williams Ephs in the semifinals this Saturday after the Ephs upset the second-seeded Trinity Bantams this past weekend. Tufts edged Williams 3-2 in their regular season meeting on Oct. 22 in a contest that saw Tufts dominate the first half and go up 2-0 before a 45-minute delay due to field flooding allowed Williams to roar back and come close to sending the game into overtime.
The game will again be played at Ounjian Field, though there’s no rain in the forecast for this weekend.
The other semifinal game on Saturday sees the fourth-seeded Middlebury Panthers, whom Tufts defeated 2-1 on Oct. 8, take on the third-seeded Hamilton Continentals, whom Tufts defeated 2-0 on Oct. 2. The winners of the two semifinal match ups face off in the championship game on Sunday.
The Jumbos know all their opponents well and can develop specific game plans for the weekend. On Saturday, the team will be looking to emulate their first half against Williams in the regular season meeting, according to Travers.
In that game, the Ephs also threw aerials frequently, flipping the ball up into the air to move it downfield, and the Jumbos were not able to adjust until after halftime. For this next game, they’ll look to adjust their press from the start.
“That sort of adjusts the forward press we do, so instead of [facing] a team that transfers a lot where [our] forwards might be further up, we’re hanging back, trying to make sure everyone’s marked and trying to deter the aerial,” Travers said.
The Jumbos are also no strangers to the late stages of the conference tournament, having made the semifinals in nine of the last 10 seasons. But Tufts has often faltered at this stage as well, losing in the semifinals in each of the last four years.
This time, however, they’ll have home field advantage on their side as they host the tournament for the first time since 2010.
That advantage comes into play not just in knowing the field better but in every aspect of preparation for the game. As Zarrella and Travers noted, it starts with the little things.
The other three teams coming to Tufts will all be traveling at least three hours, staying in unfamiliar hotels, having little control over their pregame meals and dealing with new training staff.
Winning a conference championship in the NESCAC is never easy — the 2012 Tufts team that won the national championship still lost in the NESCAC championship game and only made the NCAA tournament with an at-large bid. But this year’s team might have the best shot of any Jumbo team in recent years, and they’re already switched into their postseason mentality.
“This team is so special, and the chemistry we have is so special — these girls are actually 22 of my best friends,” Zarrella said. “There’s just a determination and a mindset that we haven’t had before, everyone’s buying into what TUFH is about — which is always something that’s been slightly there [in past years], but never fully, 100 percent there.”
The Jumbos’ run for a NESCAC title starts against the Ephs at 11 a.m. Saturday at Ounjian Field.