Though the Jumbos have two national championship titles under their belts since 2014, they have not repeated the same success in the NESCAC tournament. Saturday marked the first time since 2012 that the Jumbos have won a NESCAC quarterfinal matchup to move forward to the semifinals. Tufts hosted the eighth-seeded Bates Bobcats on Saturday under sunny skies in a 3–0 win and will face seventh-seed Hamilton this coming Saturday, also at home.
Making it to the NESCAC semifinal has been an important goal for coach Joshua Shapiro and the team for a number of years.
“The team sees it as just as important as moving on to the national tournament and having success there. You shouldn’t be able to do one without the other, and you should be able to handle your peers before you try to handle everybody else,” Shapiro said. “It’s been a source of pride to try and get here, and I think for our guys it’s been a little embarrassing. We’ve had some success at the national level, but we should be able to have similar success in our conference tournament.”
Although Bates was the lowest seed entering the tournament, it was not to be underestimated. The Jumbos were held to a 1–0 victory in Lewiston, Maine on Oct. 14, largely thanks to the performance of Bobcat junior goalkeeper Robbie Montanaro, who saved nine out of the 10 shots the Jumbos fired at him.
On Saturday, however, Montanaro only managed to save five of the eight shots the Jumbos had on goal. Tufts was in control of the game from the beginning, with senior co-captain and defender Sterling Weatherbie forcing an early save from Montanaro. The Bobcats retaliated thanks to a long goal kick into the Jumbo end, as they fired off two shots, both of which were blocked. At 20:02, Tufts sophomore midfielder Zach Lane lined up a long throw-in that came off the head of senior co-captain defender Conor Coleman and fell to Weatherbie. The Cape Elizabeth, Maine native made it 1–0 with a header toward the back post.
The Jumbos did not relent, sending four more shots at the goal within the following five minutes, all of them slightly wide but enough to keep the fans on the edge of their seats. Right before the end of the first half, the Bobcats had a free kick opportunity in a threatening position near the edge of the box. The ball in was well-placed, but junior goalkeeper Conner Mieth waded through the chaos to grab the ball out of the air before any other players could connect with it.
“I would say that we didn’t control the game as much as we would have hoped for the first 20 minutes, but once we got the goal, Bates had to push forward,” senior midfielder Kevin Halliday said. “Usually it’s been the case this season that teams sit back against us, so when it’s 0–0, it’s hard. But once we get one goal, then it becomes a little bit easier to control the game because they have to put numbers forward which gives us a bunch of space.”
The second half saw the ball stay in the Bobcat end for the majority of the 45 minutes. At the 60-minute mark, Mieth appeared to catch the ball and step outside his goalie box, causing the Bates sideline and fans to erupt in anger that they were not awarded a free kick, but the referee waved off their complaints and allowed play to continue. Seven minutes later, Lane dribbled the ball into the box and was preparing to take a shot when he was brought down by a careless tackle by the Bobcats’ sophomore defender, Liam Goldfarb. Coleman calmly lined up for the penalty and gave Tufts its second goal.
Shapiro took the ensuing stoppage of play to substitute first-year defender/midfielder Calvin Aroh for senior midfielder Tyler Kulcsar. Fifty-nine seconds after entering the game, Aroh was fed from the left wing by sophomore midfielder Brett Rojas and knocked the ball into the goal for Tufts’ third of the day and Aroh’s second collegiate goal.
With a comfortable lead, the Jumbos continued to control the game for the remainder of the clock. First-year forward Alex Ratzan was unlucky to have his goal taken away due to contact with Montanaro in the 75th minute, but with three goals already on the scoresheet, the game was pretty much locked up by that point.
Over the full 90 minutes, the Jumbos outshot the Bobcats 21 to five, and Mieth did not face a single shot on goal. This game, like every other this season, demonstrated the strength of the back line. The ball rarely strayed past the midfield line, as there was always a Tufts defender present to corral the ball back into the attack. The Jumbos still have only conceded one goal this entire season, in their single loss. Every other game has resulted in a shutout.
“Even though the defense is getting all of the credit, our shutout record is thanks to all 11 guys on the field,” Coleman said. “Our strikers at the top are making my job so much easier when they press their center backs and get nicks on the ball. While the defense is doing well and not allowing shots on goal and not giving up goals, it’s a testament to what they’re doing at the top defensively.”
Tufts, however, is not going to sleep on its semifinals opponent, Hamilton. In the quarterfinals, Hamilton overcame Amherst, the second-seeded team, 4–3 on the road. Similarly, Middlebury and Williams both beat their opponents (Conn. College and Bowdoin, respectively) on the road, making Tufts’ victory the only home win in the quarterfinal round.
“The biggest fear you have as a coach is that your guys will come in and not take an opponent as seriously as they should,” Shapiro said. “I preach all the time about the quality of our league. The evidence of last year, going in and losing to Bowdoin, [shows] you’re vulnerable to any team in our conference at any given time. Our guys understand that Hamilton is a very dangerous team … They’re a very potent group, and we’re going to have to do our best to come through that game with a victory and carry ourselves into the final.”