Tufts field hockey is back on top of the NESCAC. The team won its second conference championship in program history on Sunday with a 3-1 victory over defending national champion Middlebury on Ounjian Field after dominating Williams 5-0 in the semifinals on Saturday.
According to senior co-captain defender Nicole Arata, winning the NESCAC title was one of the first goals the team set back in August, and a goal that they have pursued every year since they won their first title back in 2009. The Jumbos were also runner-ups in 2008 and 2010 but suffered from a curse of the semifinals, losing in the penultimate round each of the last four years, including during their 2012 NCAA Championship season.
“I had so much confidence in this team, it was amazing for us to come together and play with that confidence,” Arata said. “To win on our field made it even better.”
Tufts noticeably came out playing with a lot of confidence and momentum against Middlebury on Sunday, especially after Saturday’s lopsided win over a strong Williams team. The Jumbos scored on the Panthers twice in the first 11 minutes, capitalizing on their first opportunity just a minute and a half in, and then again at the 10:30 mark. Though play remained competitive for the rest of the contest, that early lead proved to be enough for the victory.
The Jumbos have struggled all season with finishing on their numerous scoring opportunities, especially on penalty corners, but they saw significant improvement in that respect over the weekend.
“We know that you can’t take any scoring opportunity for granted, especially in such competitive, high-intensity games,” senior forward Annie Artz said. “So, I think part of it has to do with the mentality, like ‘we are finding a way to get the ball in the back of the net.’”
According to Arata, coach Tina McDavitt Mattera implemented a new corner play during the pregame warm-up, involving Arata, Artz and junior forward Mary Travers, that immediately paid off.
“Right before the game, Tina [McDavitt Mattera] came up to Annie [Artz], Mary [Travers] and I and was like, ‘so this is the corner we’re gonna do. This is how we’re gonna score,’” Arata said. “And then we got a corner in the first minute and we did it and we scored. It was just a slip right, and then a pass to stroke, which we’ve never done before — we practiced it once, and then it worked twice on Sunday.”
Tufts earned the corner on the opening push into Middlebury’s half, and Travers inserted to junior midfielder Celia Lewis. Lewis passed to Arata on the right side, who dished a pass to Artz in front of the net and Artz’s shot went in off of a Panther defender for the early lead.
After staving off Middlebury’s first good scoring opportunity with characteristically strong defense and a save from sophomore goalkeeper Emily Polinski, Tufts pressed again and earned a second corner. The Jumbos executed almost the exact same play as the first corner, with Travers inserting to Lewis, who then passed to Arata. This time, Arata slotted a pass to Travers at the right post and Travers knocked it in.
Middlebury never broke down and kept play even for the rest of the game, but Tufts’ early push gave the hosts a solid lead and made it difficult for the visitors to fight back.
Strong goalie play from Middlebury senior Emily Miller, who made three first-half saves, kept the score at 2-0 heading into halftime. The Panthers then halved the deficit early in the second period when sophomore Grace Jennings took a pass in the circle and slipped a shot past Polinski while she was screened.
But the Jumbo defense, which has been one of the team’s strongest assets this season, stifled any kind of comeback. The frustrated Panthers started to get chippy as the clock wound down, getting whistled for four cards in the second half and playing most of the final 20 minutes short-handed.
Travers set up the game’s final score in the 65th minute with an individual effort to break into the circle and create enough a space for a shot. Her shot was blocked and deflected into the air, but Artz was in position to slap it in for an insurance goal that effectively ended the contest. The clock ran out and the Jumbos rushed the field to celebrate.
Though Middlebury is known for its prolific offense, Tufts outshot the visitors 13-4 and its strong defense helped Tufts to a 7-1 advantage in penalty corners. The Jumbos used a similar game plan as in their 2-1 win over the Panthers on Oct. 8, constantly marking star junior midfielder Annie Leonard, who is third in the NESCAC in scoring with 20 goals on the year, to effectively shut her down and prevent her from even taking a shot.
Saturday’s semifinal game against Williams also featured strong defensive play and improved efficiency on scoring opportunities for Tufts. The game started off with play relatively even for the first 20 minutes, but the Jumbos then took the upper hand with a late first-half push.
Starting at the 23 minute mark, Tufts pounded Williams’ defense and senior goalie Margaret Draper with 10 shots and earned five penalty corners before Artz finally broke through on an 11th shot for the game’s first score. The score came on a penalty corner with under three minutes remaining in the half. Travers inserted to Lewis at the top of the circle, and her shot on goal was deflected in by Artz.
Artz’s three goals over the weekend — all coming from her success with being in position to capitalize on corners and loose balls in front of the net — earned her NESCAC Player of the Week honors.
“As we move deeper into the postseason, the goalies we face get even stronger,” Artz said. “So, we knew going into this past weekend we were going to have to really move the goalies in each game, through deflections or quick rebounds off the cage. We’ve been practicing deflections a lot at practice and I think that translated to the games.”
Going into halftime down just 1-0 was arguably a win for the Ephs, who were outshot 15-1 in the first half and needed Draper to make 10 saves.
The game would not remain close for long, though, as the Jumbos took a commanding lead early in the second half with a dominant surge against a solid NESCAC opponent. A few minutes after the break, junior midfielder/forward Mary Kate Patton dribbled into the circle with space and unleashed a rocket into the net from the top of the circle.
Two and a half minutes later, at the 41:12 mark, Patton repeated almost the exact same play, again scoring unassisted from the top of the circle on a hard shot.
“That’s something we’ve been saying forever, just shoot once you get into the circle instead of trying to do these little lifts or pass [or other moves] like that,” Arata said. “And she just ripped it from the top, and it worked twice.”
Two minutes later, first-year forward Marguerite Salamone fired a shot, again from the top of the circle, and sophomore forward Gigi Tutoni was in position to send the rebound back in. In the span of under six minutes, the Jumbos, leading 4-0, just about sealed the game.
Lewis added a fifth goal just before the 55-minute mark, though the Ephs did not stop fighting. They managed to earn four penalty corners and get off six shots in the second half, but Tufts’ defense allowed just one shot to reach Polinski. The Jumbos ended the game with a 23-7 advantage in shots and a 6-4 edge in corners.
Winning the NESCAC title gave the Jumbos an automatic NCAA bid, and their No. 3 national ranking earned the team a first round bye. Tufts will play No. 19 University of New England on Ounjian field Saturday at 11:00 a.m. This is the program’s ninth NCAA appearance and its first since 2013.
No. 4 Middlebury and No. 9 Trinity also received at-large bids, though none of the other four NESCAC teams ranked in the top 20 received bids because there are only six at-large bids awarded for the 24-team tournament.
The Jumbos have what appears to be a manageable path at least to the NCAA semifinals, as no team in their path is ranked and they already defeated the highest ranked team in their path, the Trinity Bantams, earlier this season. Tufts also carries significant momentum after an impressive weekend of play, and if they win on Saturday, they would also host the next round.
“Now, our focus is all on Saturday,” Artz said. “We still have business to take care of.”