Tufts heads to the Final Four of the NCAA Div. III tournament after hosting Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight games this weekend. The Jumbos (16–0–3) defeated the Amherst Mammoths (14–5–1) 3–0 Saturday, before rolling through the Montclair State Red Hawks (18–2–4) in a 4–0 romp Sunday, scoring all of their goals in the first half. Tufts will be seeking its third national championship in five years at the Final Four.
Tufts’ dominant NCAA tournament performance has silenced any doubters of its preseason No. 5 national ranking. The team rampaged to a 9–0 start to the season, its best since 1994, and is still undefeated.
One of the Jumbos’ biggest goals was to increase their offensive output after failing to score in the NCAA tournament last year and — excluding a 10–0 thrashing in the regular season — posting a measly average of 1.9 goals per game. The 2017 team’s strength was in its defense, highlighted by its 0.09 average goals against throughout the season.
As of this weekend, the team’s averages have improved over last season’s showing, averaging 2.16 goals per game and 0.45 average goals against.
In Sunday’s Elite Eight matchup against the Red Hawks, the Jumbos jumped out to a quick start in the first half, piling on four goals in 33 minutes. In the eighth minute, junior midfielder Brett Rojas stole the ball from Montclair State in its defensive third and played a through ball to junior forward Joe Braun, who tucked a low shot under helpless senior goalkeeper and co-captain Mike Saalfrank. Eight minutes later, Rojas earned his second assist of the day: After slipping and almost losing possession, Rojas recovered and worked the ball over to junior midfielder/forward Gavin Tasker, whose shot deflected off Saalfrank and rolled into the back of the net.
Rojas said that pregame preparation allowed the offense to exploit some of Montclair State’s weaknesses.
“Being able to play [Braun] against the center back and our wingers one-on-one throughout the game was something we felt we could exploit,” Rojas said. “It’s a testament to coach [Josh] Shapiro and our assistant coaches for letting us know how to break them down effectively by getting the ball wide and into the huge areas between the center backs and the wing backs, and I think we did that well today.”
In the 20th minute, sophomore midfielder Travis Van Brewer added Tufts’ third goal of the day off a loose ball from a throw in on the left flank, effectively sealing the team’s passage to the Final Four. According to Shapiro, the Red Hawks’ 3–5–2 formation allowed the Jumbos, playing in a 4–3–3, to work the balls down the flanks and then cut back into the middle. The Jumbos capitalized on this weakness in the 33rd minute to solidify their lead, allowing sophomore defender/midfielder Derek Enge to notch the fourth and final score of the day.
“We felt we could exploit those areas out of midfield, and frankly, the guys did an unbelievable job,” Shapiro said. “I thought we were as sharp as we’ve been, especially on the break. It was a great job executing a game plan that we got right today.”
Tufts generated several opportunities in the second half but did not ultimately extend its lead. Montclair State managed to generate a little bit more offensive momentum but could not create any solid opportunities, despite efforts by first-year midfielder Michael Knapp and junior forward Jose Huerta.
Shapiro explained that he had hoped his team would continue its offensive dominance into the second half, even with its significant halftime lead.
“We wanted to score, we wanted to kill it off, but we didn’t do that,” Shapiro said. “We weren’t as good offensively in the second half, but we still sustained really well. We conceded some possession but didn’t really concede any quality chances. We were able to do that with 24 different guys playing today, which is an awesome reflection on the quality of our depth.”
Overall, the Jumbos outshot the Red Hawks 21–12. Senior goalkeeper and co-captain Conner Mieth contributed a solid performance in goal for the Jumbos, collecting five saves before being swapped for sophomore goalkeeper Will Harned on the 70th minute.
On Saturday, Tufts scored three second-half goals to down NESCAC rival Amherst to advance to the Elite Eight. Both teams pressed hard in the first half, but neither managed to gain significant periods of possession. The Mammoths were able to prevent the Jumbos from winning any corners until the 37th minute, when the Jumbos earned four corners in under four minutes. Amherst was awarded numerous free kicks in the first half of the game, creating potentially dangerous scenarios in Tufts’ end of the field. But a combination of bad deliveries and solid marking by the Jumbos prevented the visitors from capitalizing on their opportunities.
Both teams created offensive chances in the opening minutes of the second half, with Tufts senior defender and co-captain Sterling Weatherbie ripping two shots from distance and Rojas having a shot blocked. The breakthrough eventually came in the 57th minute, when the Jumbos executed an exquisite passing sequence in the final third to give Rojas an open shooting lane to the goal. Tasker played a through ball to first-year defender Ian Daly on the left wing who dribbled the ball up quickly. He found Van Brewer, who had the vision to find Rojas to his right. The Amherst defenders were unable to adjust their back line to cover Rojas, and he fired a shot that hit the inside of the right post and ricocheted in.
“You’re never going to break an Amherst team quickly — they’re too good,” Shapiro said. “And they demonstrated great quality and perseverance, but eventually some of our stronger qualities helped us take control of the game, and once we got the first goal, I thought we were in pretty good standing.”
The two goals that followed were less indicative of Tufts’ offensive prowess and more so mistakes by Amherst. After a throw-in on the right wing, Enge’s shot was blocked by Amherst’s first-year goalkeeper Bernie White, but first-year midfielder Zachary Seigelstein was there to collect the rebound, which he volleyed into the goal. Then, with under three minutes remaining, the Jumbos sealed the win for good. As the Mammoths pushed forward to try and get themselves back into the game, they were left exposed at the back. Tufts counterattacked swiftly, but a pass toward senior midfielder/forward Jarod Glover looked to have been just overhit. White could not corral the ball, leaving Glover with a simple tap-in to send the crowd home happy.
Mieth explained that defeating a tough opponent such as Amherst required focus throughout the game.
“Coach had said before the game that focus and composure was how we were going to match their intensity,” Mieth said. “I felt like in the back I was kind of mother hen — my ‘spidey’ senses were always tingling … keeping our guys organized, highly communicating with them all the time.”
With the Thanksgiving weekend approaching, the Jumbos will have to wait nearly two weeks before they travel to Greensboro, N.C. Despite the break, Shapiro is still confident in the team’s ability to prepare for the semifinal matchup.
“We tell [the players] to go home for Thanksgiving and eat a bunch of turkey and enjoy themselves, but make sure they stay fit and stay involved,” Shapiro said. “We’ll get a bunch of film on our opponents and give [the players] some opportunity to start watching them. And then we’ll still have a week to prepare when they get back.”
The No. 2 Jumbos will face the No. 9 Rochester Yellowjackets, who upset the No. 1 Messiah Falcons in the Elite Eight, on Dec. 1. If victorious, Tufts will play in the title game on Dec. 2 against either Calvin or Chicago.