Men’s soccer captures third national championship in five years

The Tufts men's soccer team celebrates its Div. III NCAA title following its 2–1 win over Calvin in Greensboro, N.C. on Dec. 1, 2018. Courtesy Brian Westerholt

Saturday marked the end of a historic season for the Jumbos, who defeated the Calvin Knights 2–1 to claim their third national title in five years — a feat achieved by only two other schools in the tournament’s 45-year history. In doing so, Tufts completed its first-ever unbeaten season since the program began keeping records in 1946 with a mark of 18–0–3.

Tufts bowed out of the NESCAC tournament with a quarterfinal loss to Colby but nonetheless entered the NCAA tournament with confidence. The team benefited from the extra rest it received thanks to its first-round bye. The Jumbos proceeded to down the Stevens Ducks 1–0, the Amherst Mammoths 3–0 and the Montclair State Red Hawks 4–0 to advance to the Final Four.

Calvin College progressed to the national title game after beating the University of Chicago in a 4–1 romp, while Tufts saw off the University of Rochester 3–1 to set up a rematch of the 2016 final. The Knights’ trip to the title game marked their fourth such appearance in program history. However, the team has lost all four games — a stark contrast to Tufts’ 3-for-3 mark in championship games.

Unlike in 2016, when the first goal of the game wasn’t scored until the second overtime period, the Jumbos struck inside two minutes on Saturday in Greensboro, N.C. A Calvin turnover in the middle third allowed Tasker to take the ball up the left wing and send a cross into the box. Junior forward Joe Braun, who was heavily marked, was unable to convert, but the ball fell kindly to sophomore midfielder/defender Calvin Aroh who was on the edge of the box. The Glastonbury, Conn. native hit the ball on the volley, which was deflected into the left side of the net to give Tufts an early advantage.

Just before the half-hour mark, first-year defender Ian Daly’s long throw bounced in the box and was not cleared by the Calvin defense. The ball found its way to junior midfielder Zach Lane, who dove to head the ball into the back of the net, putting Tufts up 2–0. While the play highlighted the Jumbos’ aerial strength, it also exposed the Knights in a defensive breakdown, as sophomore goalkeeper Chris Morrish failed to secure the ball when it bounced in front of him. Instead, Morrish expected support from his defenders that did not come, allowing Lane to exploit the mistake to double Tufts’ lead.

“We set the tone in the first 15 minutes where we were super physical, and they couldn’t really hang with us,” senior goalkeeper and co-captain Conner Mieth said. “This allowed us to have some leeway to work with in the first half because they were a little bit shell-shocked, and we used it to our advantage to get two goals in.”

Calvin was awarded a penalty in the 50th minute after sophomore defender Biagio Paoletta pulled down an attacker in the boxJunior midfielder Hunter Olson stepped up to the spot and buried a shot past Mieth. Down just a goal with 40 minutes to play, the Knights pushed increasingly hard for the equalizer.

“Calvin is a great side, really well-coached and with a lot of great individual players,” Mieth said. “Every time they came down it was super dangerous. For the 40 minutes after they scored, it was definitely a battle. Guys were flying all over the place, getting stuck in, putting their bodies on the line, making tackles and winning aerial balls.”

Calvin mustered seven shots in the remainder of the second half, forcing three saves from Mieth, while Tufts managed just two shots in the same stretch. Nonetheless, the Jumbos withstood the Knights’ pressure before storming the field when the clock hit triple zeros.

“The [matchup] was the same, but both teams evolve and change,” Tufts coach Josh Shapiro told the Daily in an email. “Calvin continues to be an excellent offensive team with great possession qualities. This Tufts team is a much stronger attacking team … with more offensive weapons. I think both teams were actually stronger than the 2016 versions of themselves. This Tufts team has not had to grind out results under pressure, that was the staple of the 2016 group. But the 2016 group would have been proud of the defensive performance required of the 2018 team in the final.”

On Friday, Tufts defeated the University of Rochester Yellowjackets (16–3–2) in a resounding 3–1 result. The Jumbos swarmed the Yellowjackets from the opening whistle, applying constant attacking pressure and snuffing out any counterattacks. In the 21st minute, Braun’s bouncing shot forced senior goalkeeper Patrick Conway into a diving save. Sophomore midfielder Travis Van Brewer took the resulting corner, which was the Jumbos’ second of the game. His well-placed corner kick fell in the middle of the box, where Braun used his 6-foot-5 frame to his advantage and headed the ball into the goal.

The Yellowjackets responded by pulling out all the stops to find an equalizer. All-American senior midfielder Bryce Ikeda used his trademark long throw to put the ball into the Tufts box several times, testing the defense and forcing frantic clearances. The Jumbos did well to defend the play, however, after preparing for it after their quarterfinal victory.

The Jumbos doubled their advantage early in the second half on a quick counterattack, orchestrated by a long ball played to Braun. Braun found First Team All-New England junior midfielder Gavin Tasker streaking down the center of the pitch, as Tasker received the pass and fired a left-footed shot into the goal.

Tufts sealed the win 11 minutes later with a third goal to put the game out of reach. Despite having numbers in their defensive end, the Yellowjackets were unable to convincingly clear, and the ball ricocheted into Braun’s path. The First Team All-American assisted junior midfielder Zach Lane, who placed his shot past a hapless Conway.

In the 72nd minute, Ikeda’s corner allowed junior forward Aidan Miller to head home, narrowing the deficit to two goals. However, the Jumbos were well ahead by then, as the clock ran out on the Yellowjackets’ title ambitions.

Senior defender and co-captain Sterling Weatherbie highlighted Tufts’ depth as one of its greatest assets. The Jumbos had 21 different players see playing time in the championship game, compared the the Knights’ 13. Meanwhile, the Jumbos had nine different goal scorers during the course of the NCAA tournament after failing to score any goals in its 2017 tournament appearance.

“I think we were able to score because we stuck to the game plan that we’ve had throughout this season,” Braun said. “We’ve had a lot more success with imposing our tactics on the opposing teams’ defenses as far as spreading the ball out wide or getting it to my feet. But another difference is our strength on set pieces, and it showed this weekend. When you get a set piece, a lot of it is just the hunger, will and belief that you can get your head on the ball.”

The team will graduate four seniors in Weatherbie, Mieth, defender Jackson Najjar and midfielder/forward Jarod Glover, who committed to Tufts before it won its first NCAA title in 2014.

“When the seniors got recruited, we thought we’d be coming to a middle-of-the-pack NESCAC school,” Weatherbie said. “Four years later, we have two national championships. I think it’s a testament to all the guys who graduated before us who built up the program. We’re just really happy to continue it, and there’s just no better way to go out.”

According to Shapiro, the seniors played pivotal leadership roles throughout the Jumbos’ record-breaking campaign.

“It was a magical season,” Shapiro said. “To go undefeated against our schedule is pretty remarkable. It is a great group who committed to working as hard as possible to achieve success for Tufts soccer. It is a relatively young group with 16 [first-years] and sophomores and those young guys grew up quickly, assumed big roles, took on real responsibility and played a huge part … their urgency and drive really pushed the group forward for the last [six] weeks of the season. It was a fantastic group to coach; they wanted to work, they loved training and competing and they love each other.”

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