The Jumbos have, so far, made the most of the at-large bid to the NCAA Div. III tournament they received last Monday, their third in as many years. Only two NESCAC teams, the other being Amherst, were given bids to the tournament this year, and Tufts was lucky to receive one after falling out of the national top-25 after two consecutive losses to Bowdoin. Over the weekend, however, Tufts defeated two top-25 teams and advanced to the third round of the tournament. On Sunday, they beat No. 9 Rowan 1-0, and on Saturday they defeated No. 24 Springfield 2-0.
“It’s super exciting for all the seniors to be able to graduate with a bid for the third straight year, and [it] helps us leave the program in a better place than when we found it,” senior co-captain midfielder Zach Halliday said before the two games last weekend. “I think the way that the team will honor that is by making the most of the bid this weekend and [trying] to advance out of the weekend and as far as possible. Hopefully, we can make some of our memories as the senior class during the tournament.”
The Jumbos were coming off the back of their first-round win on Sunday, so it was up to the depth of the bench to ensure that they came up with the win when everybody was already tired. The Rowan Profs came out aggressively in the first half, taking the first shot and winning the first corner kick. However, Tufts began to ramp up the pressure in the 13th minute, with shots from junior defender Conor Coleman, senior forward Gaston Becherano and junior midfielder Kevin Halliday.
In the 23rd minute, Rowan sophomore forward Shane Doherty, who led his team in shots with four throughout the contest, fired off a shot that senior goalie Scott Greenwood was able to deflect. In the 27th minute, senior co-captain forward Nate Majumder subbed in for Becherano and less than a minute later converted first-year midfielder Zach Lane’s corner into a goal from 10 yards out.
In the following minutes, the Profs had two more attempts on goal, one of which warranted a save by Greenwood, but the game saw an uncharacteristically low number of shots, especially from the Jumbos. Tufts averages 18.5 shots per game, but against Rowan they only took seven, five of which were on target. In contrast, the Profs took 13 shots, eight of which were on target.
In the second half, the Jumbos were outshot 8-2 and Greenwood was forced to make back-to-back saves against shots from Doherty in order to preserve the one-goal lead. Both of Tufts’ shots on goal were from Kevin Halliday, who has stepped up in recent weeks and now leads the team in assists.
Greenwood emerged as the star of Sunday’s game, saving all eight shots on goal against the Jumbos, which was a large part of why the Jumbos came out on top. The victory marked Greenwood’s ninth shutout of the season and a program record 36 shutouts during his career.
On Saturday, Tufts fended off Springfield in another shutout, as Becherano scored his team-leading 12th goal of the season and first-year midfielder/forward Gavin Tasker scored his third. Tufts took nine shots in the contest and Springfield fired off six. Accuracy was an issue for both teams; only three of Tufts’ nine shots were on target, while only one of Springfield’s six needed to be saved by Greenwood.
“Springfield was a fantastic side. They pressured us many times throughout the game,” Greenwood said. “Our defense played incredibly for the full 90 minutes. [Springfield is] a team that loves to put the ball into the opposing team’s box, and our defenders, specifically [senior defender Daniel] Sullivan and [junior] Conor Coleman, played outstandingly to throw Springfield off of their game plan. They have been great all year, and it showed in our first round match up.”
In the first 45 minutes, each team took four shots but neither successfully converted its opportunities. Again, this was uncharacteristically low, as the Pride average 21.6 shots per game and 3.29 goals per game.
The second half was a different story for the Jumbos. After 10 minutes, junior defender Stephen McMillian had a free kick opportunity, which Becherano headed in the box for the first score of the game. Just over 10 minutes later, Tasker smashed a cross from junior midfielder Dexter Eichhorst past Pride senior goalkeeper Zach Richard to give the Jumbos their two-goal lead. Down two goals, Springfield could not fight back. The Pride earned no more shots on goal for the remaining 20 minutes, while the Jumbos took two more.
Both games were big wins for Tufts (9-5-2 before the weekend) as Springfield was 18-1-1 going into the weekend and Rowan had a 17-2-1 record heading into the Sunday match up. The shutouts demonstrated once again that Tufts has the ability to topple highly-ranked opponents, something they did earlier in the season against No. 2 Amherst and Middlebury.
This start to the NCAA tournament bodes well for the Jumbos, who are looking to go further than they did last year and claim the title again, as they did in 2014. The six seniors on the team who were all part of the 2014 NCAA Champions Team are chomping at the bit to repeat that level of success in their final season.
“It’s do or die. Any game could be my last time playing soccer competitively,” Sullivan said. “We don’t want it to end because we love it so much and love everyone on the team. Feeling like every game could be your last game is something that has been motivating us to go as far as we can in the tournament.”
This Saturday, Tufts will play No. 15 UMass. Boston (18-1-2) at home on Bello Field at 11 a.m. Tufts (11-5-2) will once again be the underdog, but that may lend to its success as it did in the 2014 season. Tufts will also host the NCAA quarterfinals on Sunday regardless of the outcome of Saturday’s game.
“It will be really nice being able to sleep in our own beds and follow the normal home game routine,” Greenwood said. “We’re excited to be able to have the opportunity to perform on the biggest stage in front of our home fans, and that support will be the biggest difference. In the past we’ve been used to going into a hostile away environment, and to be able to be on the other side of that should be great. However, at the end of the day, we plan to prepare and execute no differently than any other tournament game.”