Jumbos knocked out of NESCAC tournament in quarterfinals, await NCAA at-large bid

Junior back Stephen McMillian fights to keep possession of the ball in the Jumbos’ 2-1 loss against Bowdoin in the NESCAC quarterfinals on Oct. 29. (Evan Sayles / The Tufts Daily)

Tufts was eliminated from the NESCAC tournament on Saturday after falling 2-1 to the Bowdoin Polar Bears, thus losing in the quarterfinal round for the fourth consecutive season. It was a frustrating loss for Tufts, as the team had lost to Bowdoin 2-1 earlier that week and was looking for redemption.

The Jumbos entered the NESCAC tournament as the No. 2 seed with a 6-2-2 record in the conference, while the Polar Bears were the No. 7 seed, with their 4-3-3 record. At the beginning of the match, Tufts came out with low energy and appeared sluggish on defense. In the seventh minute, Tufts’ defenders left a loose ball to roll towards senior keeper Scott Greenwood. Bowdoin senior tri-captain forward Cedric Charlier was able to chase it down and face Greenwood one on one. Greenwood saved the first shot but the ball rebounded back to Charlier and he put the second shot in the back of the net. 

Just two minutes later, the Polar Bears were awarded a penalty kick after their attacker was brought down in the box, much to the dismay of the Jumbos as the Polar Bears’ attacker was offside at the time that the ball was played to him. Greenwood guessed the direction of the shot correctly, and dove to the left for a critical save.

On a Bowdoin corner kick in the 11th minute, Tufts’ defense left the back post unmarked and Bowdoin senior tri-captain midfielder Matt Dias Costa capitalized on the opportunity, heading the ball into the bottom right corner to put his team up 2-0.

According to Tufts first-year midfielder Zach Lane, while the Jumbos had a “scattered” start, they were eventually successful in holding onto the ball in their own half.

“We lacked a little bit of creativity in the final third to get the goal,” he said. “We created chances but we didn’t move the ball quickly enough to get wide open enough chances to get the goal we needed.”

From that point on, the Jumbos were playing catch up. They pressed hard for the remainder of the first half with several strong goal-scoring opportunities from senior forward Gaston Becherano, who had three shots, and junior defender Matt Zinner, whose free kick came close to going in but failed to do so.

Two minutes before the half, first-year midfielder/forward Gavin Tasker found the ball at his feet after it bounced around the box on a corner kick. He deftly slotted the ball all the way from the right side of the box into the bottom left corner, narrowing the deficit to one and giving the Jumbos the boost they needed before the end of the first half.

“We were the better team for 70, maybe 75 minutes, but clearly they were the better team for the first 15,” coach Josh Shapiro said. “We were down two but it could have been three, even four. I thought we created enough chances to get more than even but we weren’t lucky enough to take them.”

In the second half the Jumbos poured on the pressure, outshooting the Polar Bears 12-1 and earning four corner kicks to the visitors’ two. Becherano tallied five shots in the second half, two of which came on one-on-one opportunities against senior goalkeeper Noah Safian.

Junior defender Stephen McMillian was a dominant force both defensive play and on the attack, making important slide tackles to turn over possession and nearly capitalizing on two shots of his own.

“I think we showed a lot of character towards the second part of the game and that was a lot more reflective of our team’s ability,” McMillian said. “In the first half we came out too slowly and forgot that talent doesn’t win games.”

The Jumbos played much better over the final 45 minutes, as they easily kept the ball in the final third of the field. It was not enough though, and the two-goal deficit that they had allowed in the first 10 minutes could not be overcome.

The Jumbos must now wait until Monday to find out whether or not they receive an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Despite losing out in the first round of the NESCAC tournament, they can still make a deep run in the NCAA. The team has earned at-large bids each of the last two years despite being eliminated in the quarterfinals, winning the NCAA championship in 2014 and making it to the third round last year.

“It’s brutal,” Shapiro said. “They are waiting nine days [to find out if they have a bid to the NCAAs] … If we do get a bid next Monday, we’ll have had another week to prepare for our first-round meeting. We’ll get to lock in and get as sharp [as] we can, and look as fresh as we can going in to a potential NCAA bid.”

Throughout the season, the team has bounced back from its worst start since 2009 — going 0-2-1 in the first three games — to soundly beating several nationally-ranked teams, including a 3-0 win over defending national champion Amherst, currently ranked second nationally, and a 2-0 win over No. 19 Middlebury to snap its 16-game unbeaten streak.

“One thing we’ve worked on is trying to expose each line of the team a little bit more,” Shapiro said. “We defended collectively really well over the year, midfield was able to protect the back four from getting exposed. But in the times where the midfield wasn’t necessarily doing as well, the defense was cleaning up a lot of their mistakes.”

The team will continue to train for the next week in anticipation of receiving a bid, he explained.
“This week we’re trying to work on the individuals in the groups to try to lock in the details of how we want to handle our defensive schemes and put guys into a lot of offensive scenarios around the box because we’ve been in those situations a lot, and haven’t scored as many goals as we want given how many chances we’ve created,” he said.

Regardless, Shapiro explained that as the team waits for its bid results, the Jumbos hope to also focus on their time left as a group.
“We try to change the focus a little bit, make our training sessions lighter and more fun soccer, making sure we [are] enjoying the rest of our time together,” he said.