Formula for success: how the men’s soccer team has stayed on top in recent years

08/05/2017 - Medford/Somerville, MA - Josh Shapiro, Tufts men's soccer coach, poses for a portrait on Bello Field on May 8, 2017. (Ray Bernoff / The Tufts Daily)

Current Tufts students see the men’s soccer team as the rest of the NESCAC and Div. III soccer teams do — dominant and happily riding a wave that includes two Div. III national championships in the past three years. Their start to the 2017 campaign has been no different. With a current record of 8–1–1, the Jumbos have made an impression, especially defensively: they’ve given up just one goal this season so far.

But cultures don’t grow overnight. Winning isn’t a switch that can be flipped at a moment’s notice. The achievements that the team has earned and continues to earn stem from years of building up a staff and roster that buys into goals that are bigger than themselves as individuals. These seeds of success can be traced back to the man who planted them when he took over the program in 2010 — coach Joshua Shapiro.

With two national championships and honors such as being named the National Coach of the Year and heading the Div. III Coaching Staff of the Year in 2016, Shapiro has figured out exactly how to breed success. His formula for creating and keeping that culture has been key for the Jumbos’ ever-growing win total.

“[Shapiro] wasn’t recruiting us based on what the program was,” assistant Coach Maxime Hoppenot said.

Hoppenot is in his first year as assistant coach, and was part of Shapiro’s first recruiting class. He was the captain of the 2014 team that won the program’s first Div. III title. 

“He was saying more like, ‘this is a vision of what I think Tufts can be, and this is why I believe it,'” Hoppenot said.

Shapiro made quick work of that recruiting class and of the roster in general, leading the team to its first NCAA tournament bid since 1996 in 2012. Despite the growing success and talent of the squad, Shapiro’s vision never changed. Senior co-captain defender Conor Coleman, recruited a few years after Hoppenot, understood Shapiro’s message in the exact same way.

“Coach Shapiro is a very impressive guy,” Coleman said. “He’s the guy that has turned this program around, and he is quite frankly one of the best coaches I’ve ever played with, in any sport … The whole coaching staff in general really drew me to Tufts.”

And now looking at the present, first-year midfielder Travis van Brewer feels that same support from Shapiro and his teammates. But a big factor in his decision to commit to Tufts had nothing to do with soccer: he wanted to pursue engineering. However, many NESCAC schools do not offer an engineering major, and many Div. I schools do not allow athletes to play soccer along with engineering. As such, the decision to go to Tufts was easy for Van Brewer. And this isn’t just some special case study — the academics that Tufts offers are a big part of why many recruits sign.

“[Tufts] University is fantastic,” Shapiro said. “The national profile continues to get better, and the stronger Tufts is as a university, the stronger we’re capable of being as a soccer program. Our success is very much tied to the brand of the university.”

Even as all of these components have strengthened his soccer program, Shapiro hasn’t changed his coaching style or ideology from his first Tufts squad to his championship Tufts squads. Having championship pedigree obviously eases the recruiting process and brings more talent in, but he doesn’t see that as a reason to ease up on the team’s vision.

“Talent doesn’t mean much unless they’re bought in and working hard,” Shapiro said. “But I think that the culture the upperclassmen establish is a really good standard for the work you should be doing to try to get better. Guys that are coming into the program are integrated really quickly.”

Shapiro also noted that having more talent and a team that is connected between all four classes creates fierce competition, which has been key for the roster to not get too comfortable with their victories. With 26 team members who can all play at an extremely high level, every player on the roster has to fight for his role in the program. If someone is slacking, there’s a number of men hungry for his spot.

Even when the team is performing well, there isn’t any let-up from Shapiro in practice or in the film room. Whether the team just lost a match or won by four goals, he doesn’t allow a sense of complacency to linger into the minds of his players.

“[Shapiro] has been on us harder than I think he ever has since I’ve been here,” junior co-captain and defender Sterling Weatherbie said, referring to Shapiro’s coaching style this year. “For instance, when we played Brandeis, which was one of the biggest games of the season for us, and we ended up winning, we had a film session where coach pointed out so many things that we did wrong. And I guess that’s a tribute to him as someone that’s never really gonna let us be satisfied.”

The team did finally hit a bump in the road on Sept. 30 at Amherst, losing their first game of the season. The 1–0 loss also happened to be the first and only goal they’ve conceded this year. Shapiro, having been interviewed before the loss, didn’t fret about needing to go through the rest of the season without any rough patches.

“The goal isn’t to be undefeated — the goal is to be national champions,” Shapiro said. “Bumps are not the worst things that ever happen to you in that [goal]. So if we do concede a goal, hopefully we won’t melt down. If we do lose a game, hopefully we won’t melt down.”

As he predicted, the team didn’t melt down as a result of its loss. They immediately turned around and defeated Hamilton on the road on Oct. 1, and defeated Middlebury on Saturday by a score of 4–0.

The Jumbos’ mental fortitude has been tested many times over the last few seasons, whether it be their response to being top dogs this season, or winning championships as underdogs in previous seasons. According to the Jumbos, their consistent togetherness over the years has kept them sharp, even though each team is different.

“We know that we were successful last year, but we don’t try to completely mimic that team’s culture,” Coleman said. “Each year, we find a new identity … while we’re all so close and the core ideals that we’re trying to implement every year aren’t different, what blossoms into the team changes every year.”

The idea of having their own identity while also upholding a well-established message is one that comes up again and again in the locker room, with upperclassmen instilling the vision of the team into the younger players in their own unique way. Those underclassmen carry the torch as they mature over their time at Tufts, and no one on the team, no matter how young, gets left behind in the program.

“From pretty much day one, all the [first-years] knew a lot of people,” van Brewer said. “I met people from group chats, and knew everyone’s name after our first fitness test … I feel like I can go up to any person on the team at lunch, or just see them and say hi, and the chemistry on the field is a lot better because everyone’s comfortable with each other.”

It seems that ultimately, the best way that the team has been able to stay focused despite their success has been with the mentality that each team is different. And by keeping that focus clear with each new class of players, the team hasn’t allowed its culture of winning to get the team ahead of itself in any way.

Shapiro has done an amazing job of bringing up a team that has had sustained success over the years. The mentality of him and his squad, no matter how cliché it sounds, has always been to take it one season at a time with the program, and one game at a time within each season. While the program has won two championships in the last three years, the 2017–18 men’s soccer squad hasn’t won anything — yet.

“We haven’t done anything with this team,” Coleman said. “Everything we accomplish as this team, we have to go out and prove it — that’s our mentality. Yes, we might have a bigger target on our back, but I really don’t care because I trust all 26 guys on our team.”

Going from unranked in the first round of the NCAA tournament, to top-ranked in the NSCAA Preseason Poll has put the pressure on the Jumbos to live up to their new reputation, but given their well-established culture, it seems likely that they won’t disappoint.