Jumbos, once the underdogs, gear up for a season in the spotlight

(Evan Sayles for Tufts Athletics) 11/20/16 – Medford/Somerville, MA – Kenyon defender Bret Lowry, '19, Tufts forward Nathan Majumder, '17, and Kenyon defender Keven Duan, '19, fight for possession of the ball in the quarterfinal round of the NCAA Div. III men's soccer tournament on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016.

The 2016 Div. III National Champions will be a team to watch this season after winning their second national title in three years — the first came in 2014. 

Tufts entered the NCAA tournament unranked last season, and by the end was ranked No. 1 in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) pollCoach Joshua Shapiro and his coaching staff received the Div. III Coaching Staff of the Year Award from the NSCAA following the victory. Tufts won six straight games in the postseason, defeating Calvin College 1–0 in double overtime to claim the title.

Senior co-captain defender Conor Coleman attributes last season’s success to the high level of competition in the NESCAC.

“On any given day you can lose in-conference [games], and this level of play prepared us mentally to grind out games in the NCAA because there is never going to be an easy game,” Coleman said. “Our team really came together and was really close after the adversity we had at the beginning, losing and tying the first three games. Throughout the whole process we were really close and bought in to fight with one another.”

The Jumbos opened last season with a 0–2–1 record. Fortunately, their opening matches were not at all indicative of the success they would have as individual performers and as a team over the course of the following months.

The team boasted a 15–5–2 record last season, including playoffs, and graduated six impactful seniors in forwards Gaston Becherano and Nathan Majumder, defender Daniel Sullivan, midfielders Zach Halliday and Kevin Lawson and goalkeeper Scott Greenwood, several of whom were four-year starters. Becherano led the team’s scoring last season with 12 goals, earning a spot on the NSCAA All-American Third Team, while both Sullivan and Halliday received NSCAA All-New England Region honors. D3soccer.com awarded Sullivan second team All-American honors and named Greenwood its 2016 Goalkeeper of the Year. Greenwood was also a first team All-American.

“It’s going to be hard as we just lost an unbelievable senior class both on the field and off the field,” junior co-captain defender Sterling Weatherbie said. “They were great examples for everybody and we learned a lot from them that was more than just soccer, as they were a great source of leadership. The seniors took up the whole middle of the field and they were our backbone, so the players that replace them have big shoes to fill.  I have all of the confidence in the world that we have the right guys to step in but we are going to miss them.”

Despite graduating key contributors, Tufts has high hopes and expectations for the upcoming season. Defensively, the team was pristine last season, ranking third in the country for save percentage at .874, and eighth in the country for goals against average at .52.

“We are losing five senior starters so we need to determine which returners will step up and [fill] the void there,” Coleman said. “We will focus on balance on defensive mentality which has been a big theme for us for the past two national championships.”

With seven first-years and eight seniors on the roster, the team will be challenged with developing a new identity. In their annual preseason scrimmage against Bowdoin, first-year midfielder/forward Alex Ratzen scored the only goal for Tufts, with the game ending in a 1–1 draw.

“This year we are going to have a different team so [we] will have to be more technical so it will be exciting to get used to that,” Weatherbie said. “Figuring out who we are as a team will be the main focus.”

Now, with their season opener on Wednesday, the Jumbos have been touted as the No. 1 team in a Div. III NSCAA poll. In previous years, Tufts was always regarded as the underdog in both the regular season and in the postseason, so it will be interesting to see whether the team lives up to its new reputation.

On Wednesday, the team will play its first in-season match against Babson College (2–0). The Jumbos have not played against the Beavers in over a decade, so the result is unpredictable. However, the Beavers will be good competition for the Jumbos, as they have regularly received bids to the NCAA tournament over the past decade, and boasted a 11–5–4 record last season.

“Our soccer team this season should have the pure individual talent just as good if not better than last year’s team,” Shapiro said. “Our success depends on how well we come together as a group and we need to find our identity. This year, as it can be totally [different] group. We need to find the identity of Tufts soccer in 2017 and get everyone on the same page and find the strong leaders and the right leaders that will be able to pull the ship as well as last year.”