No. 2 men’s soccer finishes regular season undefeated

Junior forward Joe Braun celebrates his goal in Tufts' 4–0 NESCAC semifinal win against Hamilton on Nov. 4, 2017. Evan Sayles / The Tufts Daily Archives

The Jumbos wrapped up the regular season with a pair of wins that secured them the No. 1 seed in the NESCAC Tournament and a No. 2 national ranking, their highest this season. In doing so, the team finished without a single regular season loss, a first for the program since 1946, the earliest year for which its record is available. The Jumbos will host the eighth-seeded Colby Mules (7–6–2, 3–5–2 NESCAC) in the quarterfinal round of the NESCAC Tournament on Sunday.

Tufts overcame Bowdoin 4–3 in a thrilling affair on Tuesday afternoon, one of its toughest games of the season. The Polar Bears (9–4–2, 5–3–2 NESCAC) have historically been a major source of trouble for the Jumbos and were responsible for back-to-back losses in 2016. Tufts last beat Bowdoin with a 1–0 victory in 2013 and has either tied or lost every year since then.

The Jumbos got on the board first in the 15th minute when junior forward Joe Braun headed junior midfielder Jack Delaney’s free kick past the goalkeeper for his eighth goal of the season. In doing so, the Yardley, Pa. native took the NESCAC lead in goals (eight) and extended his lead in points scored (20).

The Jumbos sat on their 1–0 lead for most of the first half, until Bowdoin senior midfielder Moctar Niang, the second-leading scorer in the conference, was left open in the box, where he collected a rebound and slotted a shot into the goal.

“[Bowdoin’s] first goal was on us. We didn’t do a great job defending a set piece, which is one of our goals this year,” Tufts assistant coach Matt Zinner said. “I felt the way that we responded was great. In 2015, we conceded three goals [against Kenyon], lost, and it ended our season. Whereas this time, we came back and scored four goals against a team that we haven’t beaten in five years.”

The Jumbos exerted an immense amount of pressure on the Polar Bears’ defense in the second half, getting off six shots before finally scoring on their seventh. A three-on-one situation arose after two Bowdoin defenders collided with each other, leaving junior midfielder Brett Rojas with the ball and junior forward Gavin Tasker open on the left wing. Tasker received the ball from Rojas, cut inside and found the net just before the hour mark.

Just 22 seconds later, Bowdoin evened the score at 2–2 when sophomore midfielder Drake Byrd’s intended cross instead floated into the upper right corner of the net as senior goalkeeper and co-captain Conner Mieth could only watch.

The teams grappled for the lead through 20 scrappy minutes, with the Polar Bears coming out on top after senior defender Matty McColl’s corner was batted back out to the wing, allowing him to cross a ball that flew unobstructed into the net.

“Defending on corners, and set pieces in general — we knew that it was really how [Bowdoin] was going to score,” senior defender and co-captain Sterling Weatherbie said. “For their first goal, we just left their best player wide open … On the third one, we could have protected Mieth better.”

With their undefeated record on the line, the Jumbos needed to equalize with only eight minutes remaining in regular time. Junior midfielder Zach Lane controlled the ball in the top right corner of the box before sending a cross to Rojas, who was poorly marked mere feet in front of the goal and headed. With just 1:53 left in regulation, Rojas turned the cross into the far corner to push the game into overtime.

Five minutes into overtime, a hand ball by a Bowdoin defender on the goal line seemed like a clear penalty for Tufts, especially when one was initially declared. After consultation with the other officials, however, the referee took back the penalty to the Jumbos’ disappointment. Less than a minute later, though, Weatherbie notched his fourth goal of the season, putting a foot to sophomore midfielder Travis Van Brewer’s corner to give the Jumbos a thrilling sudden-death victory.

“I’ve mostly scored off of corners, which I think is because we’ve had so many big targets this year that most of the other team’s bigger defensemen mark up on Jackson [Najjar], Calvin [Aroh], Joe [Braun] and Biagio [Paoletta],” Weatherbie said. “I’ve been the odd man out basically, so it’s allowed me, Ian [Daly] and Will [Raphael], who are being marked by their smaller guys, to just go in and get some scrappy goals. Our team has just put us in good situations by just taking guys away and allowing us to have more space to be able to score.”

Despite the chaotic nature of the game, coach Josh Shapiro was not concerned with the team’s performance.

“We didn’t handle plays that we normally handle, but I don’t even think there were major tactical breakdowns; it was more of an anomaly,” Shapiro said. “I don’t think we played particularly well defensively, but I’m not worried. We will not play that way again.”

On Saturday, the Jumbos hosted the Williams Ephs on Senior Day. The team honored its four seniors — Meith, Weatherbie, Najjar and midfielder/forward Jarod Glover — in the best possible way with a 3–1 win in its final regular season home game. Two goals from Braun and a third from sophomore midfielder Mati Cano gave the Jumbos a comfortable lead after 75 minutes. Braun effortlessly headed in Rojas’ corner to get the Jumbos on the board at the 10:20 mark. After the half, the Jumbos pushed a counterattack opportunity, with Tasker sprinting up the right wing, and caught the Ephs caught completely off guard. The Concord, Mass. native slotted the ball to Braun, who took a single touch and fired a left-footed shot into the net.

“Joe has matured a lot as a player, and he is learning how he can be most successful,” Shapiro said. “When he arrived he was gangly and, frankly, awkward at times, but he’s come into himself physically and has more control of his body as an athlete. One of the things that you have to be able to do as a striker is be able to get your feet coordinated underneath you in order to get shots off in tight spaces, and he’s become so much better at that.”

Tufts’ third goal combined elements from its first two, with a head-turning cross to junior midfielder/defender Zach Trevorrow on the right wing. Trevorrow’s own cross found Cano in the box for a header. Senior goalkeeper Aaron Schein got a hand to the ball and a Williams defender seemed to cleared it off the line, but the ball had actually crossed the line and Tufts was awarded its third goal. The Ephs got one back in the 78th minute off of a corner, but the Jumbos were well ahead, and the game ended 3–1.

While their regular season is complete, the Jumbos will likely have several more busy weekends this year. Should Tufts overcome Colby on Sunday, it will advance to the conference semifinals and, potentially, the title game, on Nov. 3 and 4 respectively. The NCAA Tournament draw is set for Nov. 5, with the NESCAC champion receiving an automatic bid. In the case that the Jumbos don’t win the conference tournament, though, they are still extremely likely to receive a bid due to their impressive national rank.

Last year, the Jumbos captured the NESCAC title for the first time in program history after having bowed out in the quarterfinal round in four straight years. Tufts last played Colby in its conference-opener on Sept. 8, and the game went to overtime before sophomore forward Max Jacobs sealed a 1–0 victory for Tufts. The Jumbos held a large advantage in shots taken (21–10) and earned a whopping 13 corners.

One of the Mules’ biggest assets is their size, and their four players who are at least 6 feet 4 inches will likely mark the dangerous Braun during set pieces and corners. Despite many competitive matches between the two sides, the Jumbos have not lost to the Mules since 2010 — a streak they hope to keep alive on Sunday.

Tufts’ bid to defend its conference title kicks off at 2:30 p.m. at Bello Field.