Gritty play pushes field hockey past Wellesley, Williams

Senior forward Mary Travers battles for possession in the homecoming game against the Middlebury Panthers on Oct. 7. (Evan Sayles for Tufts University)

After a tough 1–0 loss to Bates on Oct. 14, the No. 6 Tufts field hockey team bounced back with two promising wins over Wellesley and No. 7 Williams on Thursday and Saturday, respectively. Visiting Wellesley’s home turf for the first time since a 1–0 loss two years ago, the team put together a dominant 4–0 victory.

“Bates was a huge loss for us, and we were pretty upset,” senior forward Mary Travers said. “We certainly had our chances, but we just weren’t able to capitalize on them and finish the play. As a forward, that was pretty frustrating. Bates showed us that we had all the pieces, but there was just one thing that was missing.”

In preparation for the game against Wellesley, the team focused on returning to basics, with lots of shooting practice and working out any final kinks. The Jumbos’ hard work was on full display against the Wellesley Blue on Thursday, as the Jumbos tallied their third-most goals in a game this season, trailing only a 7–0 win over the Gordon College on Oct. 11 and a 5–0 victory against Conn. College in September. Junior forward Gigi Tutoni opened the scoring just 3:36 into the game.

“Because we scored early, we could [substitute] in almost all our team, so everyone could get a little time,” Travers said. “Usually in closer games, it’s harder to get a lot of subs in. Wellesley gave us the chance to put everyone from [first-years] to seniors on the field.”

Senior co-captain Mary Kate Patton, who plays both midfield and forward for the Jumbos, scored two impressive goals, improving her season total to three. With 3:32 left before halftime, Patton received solid passes from Tutoni and junior forward Hanaa Malik and managed to work past Wellesley’s junior goalkeeper, Maggie Connelly, for the second score of the game. Patton had another opportunity at the end of the half, but Connelly made her ninth save to hold the deficit at two.

“I missed an opportunity in a stroke, and that’s my job, so I was really bummed about not following through with that goal,” Patton said.

Just minutes into the second half, however, Travers and senior midfielder Erin Sanders successfully attacked the right side of the field and played a ball behind defenders, allowing Patton to tip it into the cage. Sophomore forward Rachel Hamilton redirected a Sanders shot past Connelly to add the Jumbos’ fourth goal at the 51:15 mark.

The team’s defense is also making strides in its performance, shutting out both Wellesley and Williams, thanks to improved communication.

“[Against] Wellesley, there was only one shot on goal, and that’s a testament to the work of [junior] Issy Del Priore and [senior co-captain] Ellexa Thomas,” junior goalkeeper Emily Polinksi said.

For Wellesley’s lone shot on goal, Del Priore pressured the ball and ensured that, when the shot was released, it would be something that Polinksi could easily handle.

“When the defenders work cohesively and communicate, it makes my job a lot easier,” Polinksi said.

Wellesley’s field is made of a field turf material, while the Jumbos practice on AstroTurf. The transition between the two surfaces can be very challenging, as the ball tends to bounce more, so the team looked to make something out of scrappy plays.

“We had the right mentality, and we executed a great performance,” Travers said. “It was definitely a fun game to play and a great way to bounce back from Bates.”

Even more challenging, Tufts had just one day between its match against Wellesley and another crucial road game at Williams. Tufts coach Tina Mattera, who captained Boston University’s 1999 squad, understands how draining back-to-back games can be, and has the team participate in roll-out and stretching sessions between matches.

“On Friday, we had a shorter and lighter practice that was more of a film-watching chalk-talk because we were all exhausted after the game,” Travers said.

The Ephs entered Saturday’s game with an 11–2 record, tied for second in the NESCAC standings with the Jumbos and ranked higher than the visitors in the NCAA’s regional rankings (despite being lower in the coaches’ poll). Tufts and Williams went head to head twice last season and, although the Jumbos prevailed both times, the games began uneasily.

To emphasize how seriously Tufts took the game, Travers rolled up her sleeve to display the word “GRITTY” graffitied on her arm in black marker.

“We have a word for every game, and we write it on our wrists beforehand,” Travers said. “It was really a game of grit and hustle, and it came down to who wanted it more.”

The Jumbos certainly played with grit, as the first half saw a lot of back-and-forth battling for possession. With the offense applying pressure, the team was able to win a corner, which it had focused on in practice. Mattera drew up a set play in the huddle, and the Jumbos executed it perfectly, resulting in a goal by Hamilton off a pass by Travers at 25:47.

“Although we were excited about the first goal, we knew we needed to score another as soon as possible because Williams was receiving some opportunities as well, and we needed some insurance,” Travers said.

The team accomplished just that at exactly the 40 minute mark, with Travers sliding a shot past Williams’ sophomore goalkeeper Abby Lloyd.

“We always say to score in the first minutes of a half because the starting play really controls the tempo for that half,” Travers said. “It wasn’t the prettiest shot, but it went in. In my mind, I was just thinking about taking as many shots as I could — pretty or not — because at the end of the day, a goal is a goal.”

The defense worked tirelessly to defend against Williams’ many aerial balls and forced the hosts to play the ball to the outside instead of straight down the middle.

“The five of us on defense played really cohesively and were able to stop all of their offensive corners,” Polinski said.

With the postseason approaching and two NESCAC losses already, the players stayed competitive under pressure. Over the course of the season, Mattera has reminded them that the two ways to extend their postseason are either to win the NESCAC championship or to own a stellar record.

“Our motto is, ‘This next game is the most important of our season,'” Travers said. “That’s what we say before every game to keep us hyped and focused, no matter who we’re competing against. Our team has all of the skill and heart it takes to win the NESCAC.”

The two wins against Wellesley and Williams improved the team’s record to 10–4 and clinched sole possession of second place in the NESCAC, a slot behind No. 2 Middlebury, which boasts a 12–2 record. Tufts plans to have another gritty performance as it closes out the regular season by hosting Bowdoin on Wednesday.

“We’re going to practice our corners a lot; those are really difficult to win against great defensive teams like Bowdoin, and we need to take advantage of the opportunities we get because they’ll be far and few between,” Patton said. “At this point, it’s about trying to simplify our game and optimize our scoring. The NESCAC is super competitive, and we’re fortunate enough to be able to play in it as it prepares us for postseason. It’s definitely challenging, but we love the challenge.”