Football seniors sent off with 22 wins, most since 1982

Junior quarterback Ryan McDonald sprints down the field during Tufts' season closing 35–24 loss against Middlebury on the Ellis Oval field on Nov 11. Courtesy Nicholas Pfosi / Tufts University)

Though Tufts dropped its last game of the season, the 2017 season marked Tufts’ third winning season in a row — a feat the program has not accomplished since 1989–91 under former coach Duane Ford. The Tufts Jumbos (5–4) hosted the Middlebury Panthers (7–2) on Saturday at the Ellis Oval. Middlebury emerged victorious 35–24, claiming second place in the NESCAC, while Tufts finished sixth. 

Much like the mid-30s temperature, Tufts started out cold on Saturday. Tufts received the opening kickoff and fumbled the ball away on its own 18-yard line. Middlebury’s junior quarterback Jack Meservy hit first-year running back Peter Scibilia for a 14-yard gain before finding sophomore tight end Frank Cosolito all alone in the end zone to take a 7–0 lead just 36 seconds into the game.

“I think we started off a little bit slow,” senior quad-captain Brett Phillips said. “But after we got over that initial hump we definitely stuck with [Middlebury] for a while, played our hearts out.”

Meservy started his third career game on Saturday, as he finished out the season in place of senior quad-captain quarterback Jared Lebowitz, who tore his ACL during Middlebury’s 43–14 victory over Bates (2–7) on Oct. 21.

Tufts did not move the ball on its subsequent drive, so Middlebury took over at its own 39-yard line. A penalty against Tufts and a long pass to Cosolito set up a first and goal situation for Middlebury. It took them three tries, but eventually Meservy and the Panther offensive line got enough push to cross the plane. Sophomore placekicker Carter Massengill knocked his second extra point through the uprights, putting Middlebury ahead 14–0.

Tufts was not ready to call it quits in the first quarter, as junior quarterback Ryan McDonald completed two consecutive passes of 27 and 21 yards to junior wide receivers Frank Roche and Jack Dolan, respectively. Roche turned the first pass, a short check-down, up the right sideline for a big gain, and McDonald found Dolan coming back while rolling out to the left side.

Tufts made it to Middlebury’s end zone and punched it in from seven yards out on a pitch play to first-year running back Mike Pedrini. First-year placekicker Matthew Alswanger’s kick was true and Tufts halved the deficit, 14–7.

Toward the beginning of the second quarter, Tufts sophomore linebacker Stephen Timmins blocked a punt and Tufts recovered on the Middlebury 5-yard line. Pedrini was brought down on a run to the right, but tanked through the trenches on his second goal-line try for his second touchdown of the day. The touchdown and Alswanger’s kick tied up the game at 14 apiece.

Pedrini’s two touchdowns against Middlebury go along with the three he scored against Colby on Nov. 4. Pedrini paced the Jumbos with eight rushing touchdowns this season.

The momentum had clearly swung in Tufts’ favor and Middlebury reeled further when Tufts sophomore Robert Jones forced a fumble on the kickoff and senior defensive lineman Micah Adickes recovered. McDonald then ran up the middle from the Middlebury 23-yard line, and his receivers set excellent blocks downfield, allowing McDonald into the end zone all but untouched. Comically, four of Tufts’ five offensive lineman jumped the whistle on the extra point attempt, but the 5-yard penalty hardly phased Alswanger, who nailed the kick regardless. Tufts led for the first time in the game 21–14.

Middlebury answered in the middle of the second quarter, as Meservy found junior wide receiver Conrado Banky for a 27-yard gain that put Middlebury at Tufts’ 1-yard line. Meservy found space up the middle and fell into the end zone. Junior defensive back Tim Preston — the worst nightmare of place kickers across the NESCAC — blocked his second extra point attempt of the season, saving Tufts’ lead 21–20, which stood through the end of the first half.

Tufts was plagued by penalties in the second half, and Middlebury’s prolific offense suddenly started clicking. The Panthers received the opening kickoff and marched up the field for a touchdown in just five plays. Meservy threw a jump ball to Cosolito in the end zone that he caught over his defender. In order to make up the point they lost on the blocked extra point, the Panthers elected to go for a two-point conversion. The holder, junior quarterback Colin Waters, stumbled and did not turn upfield before a horde of Jumbo defenders swarmed him. Middlebury led by five, 26–21.

McDonald took matters into his own hands on the ensuing drive, rushing five times for 41 yards and finding senior wide receiver Mike Miller across the middle for an additional 6-yard pickup. Though the Jumbos made it to the Panthers’ 24-yard line, their drive stalled and they were forced to kick a field goal. Alswanger’s 41-yard kick came out low and slow, just barely soaring over the crossbar. The converted field goal brought Tufts within two at 26–24.

Meservy threw another jump ball, this time to junior wide receiver Jimmy Martinez, who went up over junior defensive back Alex LaPiana to make a nearly impossible grab. LaPiana ran with Martinez the whole way and appeared to tip the 44-yard pass. Middlebury failed to connect on its next three plays, all passes, but decided to go for it on fourth-and-10 from Tufts’ 18-yard line. The bold playcall paid off, as Meservy threw a touchdown to Cosolito along the left edge of the end zone. This time, the extra point was good and Middlebury jumped out to a 33–24 lead.

The Jumbos’ defense kept the Panthers off the scoreboard on their next four drives. Meservy was under pressure the whole time, conceding two quarterback hurries and two sacks. The Tufts offense was similarly held in check, and with 3:42 remaining in the fourth quarter, was pinned at its own 8-yard line. Trying to extend a play on third down and 8, McDonald unwittingly ran into the Tufts end zone and was taken down by senior quad-captain linebacker Wesley Becton for a safety. The safety brought the score to 35–24, necessitating two touchdowns for Tufts.

Alswanger kicked onside to Tufts’ sideline. The Jumbos recovered, keeping their hopes alive just a little longer. However, their drive ended in an interception to sophomore defensive back Kevin Hartley, all but ending the game.

“We’ve got to get better on offense,” Civetti said. “The defense got us the ball back a few times there in the fourth quarter [and] we stalled. We’ve got to be better with the ball, we’ve got to be more efficient with executing and we’ve got to score more points than the other team and we didn’t.”

Saturday was Senior Day for the football team, and the Jumbos honored their 17 seniors before the game. The graduating class consists of wide receiver Joe Nault, linebacker Zach Thomas, defensive back Bryce Joyner, quad-captain defensive backs Brett Phillips and J.P. Garcia, linebacker Chuck Calabrese, quad-captain linebacker Steve DiCienzo, offensive linemen Liam Thau and Gian Calise, quad-captain defensive lineman Doug Harrison, wide receivers Joe Byrnes and Mike Miller, tight end Blake Potter, safety Connor Moriarty, defensive lineman Micah Adickes and student managers Sean McCarthy and Matt Kramich. 

“Walking out there for the senior day ceremony was a little bit surreal,” Phillips said. “Coach Civetti did a great job of preparing us for that, telling us that it was going to be a lot of emotions going on pre-game and that we were just going to have to overcome that.”

The graduating senior class is the last to remember Tufts’ 31-game losing streak firsthand and they finish their Tufts careers with 22 wins, the most since 1982.

“Coming in here we were told we were making the wrong decision,” DiCienzo said. “It was just something that we felt with coach Civetti and that we felt with the staff on our recruiting visit and with the guys, but at the end of the day that’s what it came down to. The guys on the team at that time, they may have not won a football game, but they gave it their all every time and that was just something I wanted to play for.”

Garcia echoed DiCienzo’s sentiment and accredited the bond between players as a defining characteristic of the program.

“We just love each and every guy in our program and what we came here for four years ago is what we see now in our program,” Garcia said. “Just a bunch of guys caring about each other so much and going to attack every day just because the love we have in our program is very special.”

Phillips saw his junior season end after just two games due to a shoulder injury, but returned as a senior to post 50 tackles, break up two passes, force a fumble and intercept a pass. He started his sophomore season as well, adding 20 tackles and a blocked kick.

Despite the loss to Middlebury, Civetti was proud of his seniors and captains, and for good reason.

“I think Brett Phillips exudes effort, attitude and toughness. He’s an amazing young man,” Civetti said. “Incredibly committed, very caring and just someone who was all-in on everything and everyone.”

Garcia was a three-year starter for the Tufts secondary and also contributed on special teams. He posted 113 tackles, four interceptions and 16 pass breakups during his Tufts career.

“J.P. Garcia has some of the most prideful and determined focus for doing things well,” Civetti said. “I think a lot of it comes from the upbringing from his family, being the child of a Cuban immigrant who had nothing and who’s worked his whole life to achieve what he can for the people around him. I think that family commitment is something that J.P. just exudes in everything that he does, and that work ethic never goes away.”

Harrison was a leader on Tufts’ defensive line and sacked the quarterback 7.5 times in his career. He added an interception and 5.5 tackles for a loss this season. A consistent presence on the defense, Harrison played in 32 of 33 possible games at Tufts, missing just one in his first season.

“Doug Harrison is just a really, really hard working committed friend who is an old-school [defensive] lineman, [as] rambunctious [and] wild as they can be,” Civetti said. “But then he’s been on the Dean’s List for three years in the School of Engineering, so it’s [a] really unique kind of personality.”

DiCienzo tied for eighth most tackles in the NESCAC with 69, also recording 1.5 sacks and an interception in his senior season. DiCienzo patrolled the middle for Tufts as a three year starter, racking up 188 career tackles.

“Steve DiCienzo [is] probably one of the toughest football players I’ve ever coached,” Civetti said. “[He] just loves playing the game, loves playing it hard. I’m going to miss [the captains] a lot, all of them.”

Asked about the next steps for the team and its approach to the offseason, Civetti focused on player development.

“The biggest thing now is having an opportunity to teach some of the young guys some offseason things that will help them get stronger in the weight room, technique, things like that,” Civetti said. “[We’re] starting to build the nucleus of the leadership group that will exist here next season. I know I’m going to go home and spend some time with my little girls, that’s my number one goal right now. And just to appreciate another good year. I love these kids, they gave everything they had. We’ve just got to work harder, it’s the only choice you have.”