With just under three minutes remaining in the NESCAC championship match Sunday, both Tufts and Middlebury were scoreless despite many close second-half opportunities. At 87:04 of regulation, senior defender Matt Zinner fed the ball wide right to sophomore midfielder Zach Lane who was barreling down the right flank. Lane crossed the ball into the box where sophomore midfielder Brett Rojas then headed the ball into the left corner of the goal, scoring the winning goal and securing the team’s first NESCAC championship in program history.
“I saw Lane get the ball wide and I know that every time he’s on the ball he’s going to make something happen, so when I saw him start to beat his defenders, I just made a run into the box and found a perfect ball to my head,” Rojas said. “We were happy to get coach [Josh] Shapiro his first ever NESCAC title, this is something we think he deserves because he has taken the program somewhere that is beyond impressive.”
Preceding the goal, Tufts dominated the second half in terms of possession and pressure. The majority of the half was played in the Middlebury third with the Jumbos totalling 14 shots in the half while limiting the Panthers to four. Senior midfielder Kevin Halliday jumpstarted the Tufts offense a few minutes into the second half with a corner kick that was headed out of bounds by a Middlebury defender. At 57:38, Halliday found himself with the ball just outside the 18, and masterfully got a shot off that curved toward the top right corner, forcing the Middlebury goalie to jump and punch the ball out of bounds.
Sophomore midfielder/forward Gavin Tasker caused chaos up front for Middlebury and led the team with four shots on the game. Midway through the half, Tasker raced into the box and faced the goalie one on one and managed to get a shot off but it was blocked. Sophomore midfielder/defender Zach Trevorrow continued to pepper the goalie a minute later, coming down the left side and firing a shot that went wide right.
Tufts had seven corner kicks total, as opposed to four for Middlebury, but did not turn the corners into scoring opportunities due to the impressive Middlebury defense. Despite the victory, the team was not pleased with its first half performance. Of the Jumbos’ 16 total shots, only two were generated in the first half, while half of Middlebury’s eight shots came in the first.
“I felt [that] we started really flat and we didn’t really engage in the game like it was going to be hard,” Shapiro said. “I think part of that came from when we played [Middlebury] last time because they were kind of injury-riddled and we beat them more decisively and the guys weren’t prepared to work for it. I really emphasized the fact that we were going to have to be proactive with our soccer and we were going to have to improve in every way in the details of the game, the quality of our passes, our communication, our urgency to work off of the ball — those kinds of things were going to have to be taken to whole different level if we were going to have the success that we wanted to.”
The Panthers were also awarded three corner kicks in the first half, and the team’s closest opportunity came around 25 minutes into the game. A Middlebury striker sent a cross from the left corner, where junior goalie Connor Mieth made a jumping save to punch the ball out of the frame and after a scrum in front of the box, Tufts finally cleared the ball.
Rojas explained that the team was hoping for earlier scoring opportunities, but failed to convert on many chances.
“No one on our team had ever been to a NESCAC final, and obviously we’ve made deep runs in the national tournament before but this was a new atmosphere to us,” Rojas said. “The NESCAC playoffs [are] somewhere where we’ve struggled in the past so I think we were a little antsy and frantic to find that early goal. We knew if we were able to find one early then we would have the chance and the game would open up and we would be able to bury them.”
In the semifinal match against Hamilton, Tufts dominated and came out on top with a 4–0 victory. Halliday was responsible for the first two goals of the game, and got the team on the scoreboard at 23:17, when he received the ball from a throw-in and took a shot from the left corner of the box, curving the ball into the top right corner, just past the outstretched hands of the goalie. Halliday found the back of the net again inside the first 10 minutes of the second half, after a foul was called on Lane right outside of the 18. Halliday took the free kick and hit the left frame, and the ball ricocheted into the right corner of the net.
“It was a pretty good performance and I think we had the right mentality. Getting that early goal really helps, especially with our team so I think it was good because we got to enjoy the rest of the game, play the ball on the ground, score some goals and get our confidence up a little bit and then focus on [the championship game],” Tasker said.
At 72:24, Rojas received a long ball down the right side and quickly crossed it in front of the goal, where sophomore forward Joe Braun (who was returning to action after being sidelined with mono) was waiting completely undefended to net the third goal of the game with a quick one touch shot. Having exhausted the Hamilton defense with high pressure, the fourth goal came three minutes after the third when sophomore midfielder Jack Delaney dribbled into the box and snuck the ball past the outstretched Hamilton goalie and it rolled into the left corner.
The Continentals’ sophomore goalie Linds Cadwell put up a good fight despite playing with strep throat and a high fever. In all, he registered two saves.
Winning the NESCAC Championship also grants the team an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament. The team is awaiting the final bids going out to other teams to determine whether Tufts will host NCAA tournament games; however, their No. 1 ranking in the region makes it likely that Bello Field will be home to at least the first round of the tournament. Tufts has not conceded a goal in 10 games, and hopes to continue the history of success in NCAA tournaments.
Shapiro attributes the NESCAC Championship and overall success of the team this season to the confident mentality of the team.
“I think one of the challenges we’ve had in some of the teams that had success in the past was we were much better or more comfortable in the underdog role, and this team has managed to be out front. We are one of the better teams in the league because of our record and teams are going to be gunning for us and we managed that pretty well,” Shapiro said. “We didn’t shirk from the responsibility of being the top seed or get nervous about having the expectation of being good and playing well.”