Sophomore forward Gigi Tutoni boxes out a Skidmore player in the NCAA Championship Quarterfinal victory against the Skidmore Thoroughbreds on Nov. 13. (Max Lalanne / The Tufts Daily)

No. 3 Tufts punches ticket to NCAA Final Four

Four years after winning a national championship, Tufts field hockey is back in the Final Four. After earning a first-round bye for winning the NESCAC Championship, No. 3 Tufts hosted second and third round NCAA tournament action on Ounjian Field this past weekend. Tufts knocked off No. 19 University of New England 2-0 on Saturday and No. 11 Skidmore 1-0 on Sunday to advance to the semifinals against No. 2 Salisbury this weekend in Geneva, N.Y.

This will be the Jumbos’ fourth Final Four appearance in program history and their first since they won the 2012 national championship, also held in Geneva, N.Y.

The Jumbos appear to have made the most of their week of rest after winning the NESCAC Championship and came out strong by taking early leads in both games. The story this weekend mirrored much of the team’s season overall, as Tufts capitalized on just enough scoring opportunities and relied on its strong defense to prevent opponents from taking too many shots on goal to earn its 11th and 12th shutouts of the season.

“I think [coming out strong] starts with preparation,” sophomore midfielder Fallon Shaughnessy said. “We had a big focus on practicing very hard going into the game, and practicing like we play. So in our practices leading up to this weekend we really focused on having a mentality that we have to bring our all, with it being single-elimination. And I think going into the game our mindset that morning — our mindset going into warm-ups — was focused on the game, and [we had] high confidence.”

On Sunday, the Jumbos dominated the opening minutes and scored the eventual game-winner just 3:30 into the contest. Junior forward Mary Travers earned Tufts’ first penalty corner at the 1:29 mark and she added two more corners in the next two minutes, peppering Thoroughbred sophomore goalkeeper Elizabeth Coughlin with shots on each play.

On the third corner, Travers inserted to senior co-captain defender Nicole Arata and Coughlin saved Arata’s direct shot on goal. In the ensuing scrum in front of the net, junior midfielder/forward Mary Kate Patton slapped the ball towards the goal and sophomore forward Gigi Tutoni was in position to tip it in.

“It all happened so fast,” Tutoni said. “But our coach [Tina McDavitt-Mattera] told us to be ready for rebounds with our sticks down, so that’s what we did and it worked.”

The Jumbos kept the pressure on after the score, but the Thoroughbred defense limited the damage and made it through the Jumbos’ nine shots in the first 10 minutes, conceding just the one goal. Coughlin made four saves over that span.

As Skidmore settled in, play began to even out over the remainder of the first half. The visitors got their first shot off almost 16 minutes in, but the Jumbos still maintained a dominant 13-3 advantage in shots and a 5-0 advantage in penalty corners over the first period.

Neither team was able to get much momentum going through much of the second half, especially with the referees being strict on foul calls. With the game clock — and the clock on Skidmore’s season — running down, the visitors started battling with more intensity and started putting more pressure on Tufts’ defense.

The Thoroughbreds got their lone corner of the game with eight minutes to go but were unable to get a shot off. Despite the ball staying in their defensive half for much of the final 15 minutes, the Jumbos limited the Thoroughbreds to just one second-half shot.

With six minutes to play, Skidmore pulled Coughlin out of the goal for the extra fielder and then shortly after that Tufts senior co-captain forward Dominique Zarrella received a green card that gave the visitors a two-man advantage.

“We were definitely looking to maintain possession of the ball and keep our control [in those final few minutes],” Shaughnessy said. “We didn’t want to be pulled into playing a rushed style, we wanted to stay relaxed and calm.”

The Jumbo defense held on until the final whistle and the bench cleared to rush the field. Tufts finished the game with a 19-4 advantage in shots and a 7-1 lead in corners, but the stat line belied how even play became towards the end.

Saturday saw a similar story, though Tufts’ somewhat more comfortable lead prevented the level of late-game drama in Sunday’s contest. UNE actually got the first scoring opportunity of the game in the early minutes but couldn’t put a shot on goal, and Tufts quickly took over the rest of the first half.

The Jumbos got the scoring started on a series of three penalty corners, starting in the 15th minute. Travers, junior midfielder Celia Lewis and Arata tested Nor’Easter senior goalie Holly Smith with five shots in a minute and a half, but Smith made several early saves in an impressive performance despite the loss.

The Jumbos broke through on their third corner, with Travers inserting to junior midfielder Erin Sanders who rocketed a shot home to put the hosts up by one just after the 17-minute mark.

The Jumbos continued to pressure the Nor’Easter defense and made it tough for the visitors to clear balls out of their end.

“Against UNE, we did our normal offensive press, but we did a more tilted press [that] kind of deterred the transfer in their backfield, so we weren’t running as much,” Tutoni said.

The press worked, as Travers picked off a UNE clearance attempt roughly five minutes after Tufts’ first score and charged the net for a shot. Smith saved the first attempt, but Travers collected her own rebound and sent it back in to pad the Jumbos’ lead.

The first-half stat line was even more lopsided than on Sunday, with the Jumbos holding a 15-1 advantage in shots and a 5-0 advantage in corners. Smith made nine first-half saves to keep the Nor’Easters within striking distance.

The visitors came out stronger in the second half and play evened up. But the Jumbo defense refused to allow possessions in their end to translate into shots on goal, and the Nor’Easters still only managed to get off two shots in the second period. Tufts reclaimed the momentum as the clock wound down and coasted to the victory.

Tufts now will head to the campus of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate New York this weekend for a semifinal showdown with NCAA rival Salisbury. The Jumbos have faced the Sea Gulls three times in the past decade in the NCAA postseason but have fallen short each time.

Salisbury knocked Tufts out in the second round in 2007 in a 2-0 win, prevailed 1-0 in the 2009 semifinal and most recently got the better of Tufts in a 1-0 second-round game in 2013. The Jumbos’ three seniors, Arata, Zarrella and forward Annie Artz, still remember the pain of the 2013 loss and are looking for revenge.

Tufts looks to be in good shape with one of the top defenses in the nation.

“We always say our defense starts with our forward line and extends down the field all the way to our goalie,” Shaughnessy said. “I think having that mindset, going for all the 50-50 balls and having strong [defensive] sticks all contribute to that.”

There is room for improvement offensively, as the Jumbos managed just three goals this weekend on 39 total shots. Tutoni noted that it’s too late in the season to make any major adjustments and that at this point, it all comes down to attitude on game day.

“It’s not so much skill-wise what we need to work on,” Tutoni said. “[Salisbury is] a super athletic, super-skilled team, but at the end of the day, we’ve come so far this season that [none of the teams left] are going to improve very much. So it’s just a mentality thing — we need to go into the game believing we can win, and we have to give it our all.”

If the Jumbos take down the Sea Gulls on Saturday, they move on to the national championship game on Sunday to face the winner of the No. 1 Messiah versus No. 7 Babson semifinal matchup. The last time Tufts field hockey traveled to Geneva, N.Y. in Nov. 2012, they came home with a national championship trophy. The Jumbos will be looking to do that again this weekend.

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