Tufts suffered its first loss of the season on Sunday against Colby, 3–2 on penalties after a goalless 110 minutes in the NESCAC Championship quarterfinal. The No. 1 Jumbos failed to convert three of their five penalties in the shoot-out, crashing out to the No. 8 bottom-seeded Mules. Failing to convert was a repetitive theme throughout the match as the Jumbos notched 39 total shots compared to the Mules’ 11, yet with nary a goal to show for it.
This year marked the fifth year since 2012 that the Jumbos have lost in the first round of the conference tournament, though in two of those years — 2014 and 2016 — the team went on to claim the national championship.
A Tufts goal felt inevitable throughout the entirety of the match, but the players spurned almost a dozen gilt-edged chances. Tufts took command of the match from the start, pinning Colby into their own half for minutes at a time. Sophomore defender Biagio Paoletta was especially effective, winning aerial duels and pegging the opposition back. The Mules’ offense didn’t force a save out of senior goalkeeper and co-captain Connor Mieth in the entire first half, eliciting only two total in the match.
“It starts from our defensive mindset, and that starts from [junior forward] Joe Braun,” Paoletta said. “He’s always pressuring their defense into playing long balls and weak passes that we can easily intercept. Once we get the ball, we don’t do anything too crazy with it, give it to our midfield and let them do the rest. By out-possessing them we can limit their shots and make them tired — when they did get the ball, they didn’t have the energy that we did and we won it back quickly.”
Sophomore defender/midfielder Calvin Aroh played in front of the Jumbos’ back four, shielding them from pressure and playing the ball with composure out of the back and into the midfield. Tufts dominated possession and played out of the back with ease, but could never quite reach Colby’s 18-yard box. Coach Josh Shapiro’s decision to replace Braun with sophomore forward Max Jacobs near the half-hour mark did not fix the lack of penetration.
Braun spoke to the difficulty of playing against Colby senior defender Garrett Dickey, who is 6 feet 8 inches.
“A lot of the time when we would cross balls in, Dickey was just eating everything up,” Braun said. “They did a good job clearing a lot of our crosses, and so we needed to be smarter about avoiding him and picking out one of our runners going into the box. Our crosses could have been designed better to avoid Dickey and the front post to look to get the ball in to the back post.”
The brightest spot for the Tufts offense was junior midfielder/forward Gavin Tasker. A speedster with a superb first touch, Tasker penetrated the Mules’ defensive third consistently. The Jumbos’ best chance of the game came 28 minutes in. Tasker dribbled inside and curled a shot towards the far post, but the Mules’ senior goalkeeper Dan Carlson dived to make a save and the ball fell to junior midfielder Zach Lane, who was only yards away from the goal. Lane leaned back, and the ball sailed over the goal.
In the second half, Tufts continued to pile on the pressure, forcing Carlson to make three saves to their 17 shots. The Tufts defense held even firmer, only allowing two shots on target. Braun found himself in numerous scoring opportunities, taking a whopping eight shots in the second half, but only one was on target.
Braun spoke about how he felt about the opportunities he had in the game.
“It was less what Colby did well and more us just not finishing our chances,” Braun said. “I kind of have a striker’s mentality in that I try not to let me missing an opportunity deter me from taking another chance later in the game. I try and have a short memory in the sense that my next shot is going to go in.”
One of the Jumbos’ strongest chances of the game came at 70:57, when first-year defender Ian Daly sent a cross to sophomore defender/midfielder Derek Enge, who was unmarked just outside the box. Enge curled a shot with his first touch down the middle of the goal but it slammed right against the crossbar.
With under 10 minutes left and still no goals to show on either side, Tufts turned on the gas, firing five shots in the last seven minutes of regulation. This included a give-and-go between Braun and Lane with three minutes to spare; Braun’s shot just skimmed the top of the bar, drawing gasps from the spectators.
The physically formidable Mules defenders held against the Jumbos’ waves of attack in both periods of overtime, finally forcing the game to the dreaded penalty kicks. Last year, Tufts played in two shootouts, winning them both. Tufts was not so lucky this time. After Lane converted his penalty, junior midfielder Jack Delaney dragged his shot wide left and sophomore midfielder Travis van Brewer had his saved.
First-year midfielder Zachary Seigelstein secured a lifeline by scoring, but at that point Colby had scored three penalties of their own. Compared to last year where Mieth saved three penalties, the Mules’ shots were too much for the Montclair, N.J. native.
Tufts was given a second chance when Colby missed their fourth penalty, but still there was no room for error. Tasker stepped up in an attempt to prolong the shoot-out, but Carlson made one more impressive save to end the game, delivering the Mules perhaps their biggest win in 24 years, when they reached the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference semifinals in 1994.
For Tufts, losing its first match of the season in a winner-takes-all tournament game is not an easy pill to swallow, especially with the team going unbeaten in the regular season for the first time since records began in 1946. But this Tufts team does not lack confidence: Paoletta said that this is just a hiccup in an otherwise record-breaking season for one of the best teams in the country.
“We think that we’re the best team out there in the 90 minutes of regular time, 20 minutes of overtime and PKs,” Paoletta said. “We have the confidence that we can beat you in all three of those. Today we got unlucky.”
Tufts awaits the NCAA tournament draw on Nov. 5 to see whether they make the national tournament. With a 13–0–3 record, No. 2 national and No. 1 regional ranks, the Jumbos are likely to receive a bid. For a team that has played 16 games in fewer than eight weeks, the two-week break is a welcomed rest. Hopeful for a NCAA tournament berth, the Jumbos will take the time to gear up both mentally and physically ahead of their first national fixture.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the penalties score as 3–1. It was 3–2. The article has been updated to reflect this change. The Daily regrets this error.