Tufts field hockey extended its season as long as possible and delivered plenty of drama, battling through two overtime periods in a scoreless national championship game on Sunday before falling to Messiah College in a heartbreaking 2-1 shootout. Tufts advanced to its third NCAA title game — having won in 2012 and lost in 2008 — by edging out Salisbury 1-0 on Saturday in a semifinal contest.
Senior co-captain defender Nicole Arata expressed the team’s mixed emotions coming out of the season.
“I think everyone is proud of how far we came and that we extended our season to the last possible second, but also initially we all feel really heartbroken and it is really painful because we did get so close, and the game could have gone either way,” she said. “In that respect, it hurts to have lost and to have been so close, but there’s so much to be proud of [for] this team and … the season.”
As snow began to fall on McCooey Field on the campus of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., the Jumbos and the Messiah Falcons fought to a 0-0 tie through 100 minutes of play in a showdown between the nation’s top offense and one of the nation’s best defenses.
Messiah entered the weekend leading Div. III with 4.81 goals per game and has been ranked No. 1 in the national polls since early October. The only time Messiah scored fewer than three goals in a game prior to Sunday was in its season-opening 1-0 overtime loss — the lone loss of its 22-1 season — to Shippensburg University, a Div. II school that just won its own national championship this weekend.
Tufts entered the NCAA Championship ranked No. 3, having allowed just 13 goals in 20 games this season for a 0.65 goals against per game average, the third best in the nation.
Regulation time saw a hard-fought battle for possession as both teams struggled to create scoring opportunities. The Jumbos perhaps had the edge early in the first half, earning a 5-3 advantage in penalty corners and leveraging those five corners to get off eight shots to the Falcons’ six. Junior midfielder Celia Lewis came close to an early score with a shot off of the second Tufts corner that would have beaten Falcon sophomore goalie Shelby Landes if not for a defensive save from sophomore defender Shayna Landis.
The Falcons, on the other end of the field, had fewer but more threatening chances. While moving away from the goal, junior forward Carissa Gehman fired an impressive backhand shot from the left side that clanged off the post in the 10th minute. Messiah claimed the momentum late in the first half, getting off a shot that forced a defensive save from junior midfielder Mary Kate Patton and then back-to-back shots in the 31st minute that sophomore goalkeeper Emily Polinski saved. The half ended with a pair of dangerous Messiah corners, but Tufts’ defense held strong and blocked the shots on both.
As the wind and snow picked up in the second half, both defenses locked down and scoring opportunities were scarce, with possession mostly staying in the middle of the field. Neither team seemed to have a definitive edge in momentum. The Falcons threatened in the final minute of regular time and got off a shot that went wide, but with 16 seconds to play, Lewis was given a green card.
As both teams headed into seven-on-seven overtime, Lewis had another 1:44 left on her card to give Messiah a crucial man-up advantage. The Falcons pressed early in the first 15-minute overtime period and unleashed a shot that nearly ended the game just 30 seconds in, but the Jumbo defense held on until Lewis’ card expired.
Messiah continued to press and created a few heart-pounding moments, including multiple breakaways by Gehman and senior midfielder Lindsay Bower, but Polinski charged out of goal each time and disrupted the plays just enough to prevent the Falcons from finishing.
After getting outshot 5-1 in the first overtime period, Tufts regained the momentum in the second overtime, outshooting Messiah 4-1 and earning three penalty corners. The Falcon defense did a good job of blocking up Jumbo shots on the penalty corners and staved off a game-ending score.
Time expired after 100 minutes of play without a score, and, per field hockey rules, the game went to a five-round shootout. In a field hockey shootout, players start with the ball 23 meters out in a one-on-one against the goalie and have eight seconds to shoot, with the showdown ending when the eight seconds expire or the ball goes out of play.
Adding to the suspense, there were several minutes of delay before the shootout started, as a facilities crew had to bring in a snowplow to clear the accumulating snow in front of the net as the temperature dropped to 31 degrees.
“That moment where we were waiting for the plow to clear the snow was one of the most telling moments for our whole team,” Arata said. “We were huddled around this space heater on the bench just singing our favorite songs to keep warm and jumping up and down. Everybody was just so amped, but trying to stay calm and poised at the same time and not get too nervous.”
None of the Jumbos’ first three shooters — senior co-captain Dominique Zarrella, sophomore defender Issy Del Priore and Arata — were able to score on their attempts, but the first two Falcon shooters both came through to put the Jumbos into a must-make situation, down 2-0 with just two more rounds to go.
In the first must-make attempt, Tufts sophomore midfielder Fallon Shaughnessy slipped a shot past Landes to close the margin to 2-1. The next Falcon shooter then missed to keep Tufts’ hopes alive.
In the next critical attempt, senior forward Annie Artz, the team’s leading scorer with 14 goals on the season, saw the ball knocked away as Landes came sliding out to seal the win and earn the Falcons their first ever NCAA title.
The win broke Messiah’s long-running curse of losing in all eight of its previous trips to the national championship game.
Just as the Jumbo defense kept the team in Sunday’s game, it was the defense that won Saturday’s semifinal. Facing another prolific offense — Salisbury ranked second in the nation behind Messiah with 4.50 goals per game — Tufts limited Salisbury to just seven shots, only three of which were on goal.
Saturday’s contest was a battle for possession with few good scoring opportunities. In the first half, the ball almost never entered either team’s circle, with the Salisbury Sea Gulls earning one corner and getting off two shots and Polinski kicking away the only one on goal as soon as it entered the circle.
Though they were shut out of scoring chances in the first period, the Jumbos began to build up momentum in the second half. Tufts had a definitive 12-5 advantage in shots and put significant pressure on Salisbury’s defense with five corners. With the offensive pressure mounting, the Jumbos finally broke through with just under 11 minutes remaining in regulation when Zarrella scored for the first time since the season-opener against Colby. Zarella led the team in scoring the past two years but has been hampered by a bulging disk in her back for most of the season and only started easing back into play in late October.
The Jumbo defense held on in the face of renewed pressure from the Sea Gulls’ offense in the final 10 minutes and was able to run out the clock to hold on for the team’s 13th shutout of the season and advance to Sunday.
Despite the results of the weekend, there are plenty of positive takeaways for the Jumbos.
“[After the championship game, coach] Tina [McDavitt-Mattera] was telling us to hold us to hold our heads high, that we had a lot to be proud of and that it was a battle that unfortunately didn’t go the way we wanted it to,” Arata said. “But going forward now, all of the underclassmen have a taste of what it feels like to be in a championship game. So that’s going to shape the program for the years to come.”