On NESCAC championship weekend, Tufts’ sports teams once again proved why it feels good to be on top.
On Sunday, three of Tufts’ most prolific fall sports teams competed in their respective NESCAC championship games. The volleyball and men’s soccer team came out of the weekend as champions in extremely close games. Volleyball defeated Bowdoin in a two-point-differential fifth set to clinch a 3–2 match victory. Men’s soccer scored a goal in the final three minutes of regulation to come out with a 2–1 win over Middlebury, and the field hockey team barely lost in the finals in an overtime 3–2 battle against Middlebury.
The NESCAC is widely regarded as one of the most competitive Div. III conferences in the country, and thus a win in the NESCAC tournament could serve as a positive sign for potential NCAA tournament success to come.
For the volleyball team, its rise to NESCAC glory came off the heels of an already monumental season for the Jumbos. With an undefeated conference record of 10–0 and an overall regular season record of 24–1, the team made history by solidifying the best regular-season record in program history. Out of their 85 sets this regular season, the Jumbos only lost 10.
It came as no surprise then when Tufts secured the No. 1 seed in the NESCAC, thereby being granted a home bid to host the tournament in Cousens gymnasium this past weekend. Starting on Friday, the top eight-seeded teams in the NESCAC traveled from as far as Clinton, N.Y., to battle for the NESCAC trophy.
On Friday and Saturday, Tufts breezed passed No. 8-seeded Hamilton and No. 5-seeded Middlebury in back-to-back 3–0 victory matches. However, in the final on Sunday, the Jumbos faced the No. 3 Bowdoin Polar Bears in one of their most competitive games of the season.
Despite stealing the first set 25–21, the volleyball team fell behind and lost their second and third sets 25–18 and 25–20, respectively, falling behind 2–1 in the match to the hungry Polar Bears, who were the reigning NESCAC champions.
Senior offensive/opposite hitter and co-captain Maddie Stewart wrote in an email to the Daily about the mindset her team adopted when Bowdoin pulled ahead going into the fourth set.
“After going down 2–1, we decided that we were going refocus our energy to enjoy every moment and have fun on the court,” Stewart said. “We play our best when we play loose, and we kept building momentum that launched us into a strong fifth set.”
In an act of sheer persistence, the Jumbos bounced back, clinching the fourth set and bringing the back-and-forth and game-deciding fifth set to a score of 14–13. The tension could be felt in the room during the final rally, as both team’s electrified benches stood up to witness the concluding moments of the game.
As the entirety of Cousens gymnasium held their collective breath, first-year defensive specialist Stephanie Lee bumped the ball to senior setter/opposite Rachel Furash. Furash set the ball for Stewart, and the Menlo Park, Calif., native delivered a devastating kill towards the Bowdoin side of the court. The Polar Bear defenders were unable to recover Stewart’s shot, and as the home crowd started roaring, the entire Jumbos bench rushed the court to celebrate their first NESCAC victory in over 20 years.
Stewart described the reaction her team had upon learning that they had triumphed over Bowdoin.
“We were all unbelievably excited to win the first NESCAC title in over 20 years,” Stewart said. “It feels amazing, and I am so proud of all of the hard work and dedication that our team has done to bring home the conference title.”
Meanwhile, two hours away in Amherst, Mass., the No. 5 nationally ranked Tufts men’s soccer team was battling in its first NESCAC finals appearance since 2017 after missing out of the tournament last year in a tight quarterfinal upset. The men entered the tournament as the No. 2 seed after their first conference loss in over two years came at the hands of rival Amherst on Oct. 12.
Coming into the weekend, the team was determined to have the chance to get NESCAC championship vengeance over No. 1-seeded Amherst on their home turf. However, the Jumbos never got the chance. Prior to Tufts’ 1–0 overtime victory over Williams on Saturday afternoon to advance to the finals, the Amherst Mammoths fell to the No. 6-seeded Middlebury Panthers in a 1–0 upset. After clinching their only goal in the 16th minute of play, the Panthers held onto their lead despite a bombardment of 17 ensuing shots by the Mammoth offense in comparison to the Panthers’ five. Thus, Middlebury advanced to face Tufts in the final on Amherst’s home field.
In Sunday’s championship game, both Tufts and Middlebury remained scoreless throughout the entirety of the first period of regulation. But by the second period, it was evident that Tufts was determined to gain offensive control in the match. Tufts attempted 11 shots in the half, compared to Middlebury’s three. Tufts coach Josh Shapiro spoke about how the Jumbos’ depth was crucial in establishing dominance over the Panthers in the second half.
“In the Middlebury game, I thought the depth was key. I thought they got tired towards the [end of the] first half and into the second half,” Shapiro said. “They had to play and they did brilliantly to beat a tough Amherst team the day before, but I felt like we started to wear them out.”
Indeed, Middlebury gave up the first goal of the match against junior forward Max Jacobs, who had been substituted into the game less than 30 seconds prior. Shapiro spoke further about how Jacobs was able to execute the goal.
“We were able to switch play quickly and get at their fullbacks,” Shapiro said. “We started to have a lot of success, and it was a second-layer guy who got the first goal, Max Jacobs.”
It took just over 20 minutes for Middlebury to come up with the equalizer to put the game tied with less than 12 minutes remaining in regulation. However, despite the setback, Tufts was unwilling to let a similar overtime situation as the day prior.
With just over two minutes remaining in the match, Tufts senior forward Joe Braun gained possession of the ball in the box. With his right hand in a Tufts-colored blue cast, Braun instantly turned his body and nailed a right-footed shot past his defender and past the misdirected goalkeeper to put Tufts up 2–1. The entire Tufts team celebrated, and the team was able to hold off Middlebury to claim their second-ever NESCAC title.
When asked about what makes this group of men’s soccer players different from the rest, Shapiro addressed the threat his team possesses for other competitors.
“We are a threat for 90 minutes, and it’s not just our starters that you have to worry about,” Shapiro said. “There are guys who can hurt you from different positions and in different layers of the team.”
Evidently, Tufts’ two NESCAC championship victories on the weekend ended in a last-minute triumph for the volleyball and men’s soccer teams. However, for the Jumbos field hockey team, their hopes for a win against the defending NESCAC champion Middlebury Panthers — who beat the Jumbos in both the NESCAC and NCAA championship finals last year — were defeated in crunch time by a late overtime goal to give the No. 1-seeded Panthers a 3–2 win on their own home turf.
Throughout the game, the Jumbos kept pace with the Panthers. Middlebury’s opening goal was quickly responded with another by Tufts junior forward Alexis Chauvette. Sophomore forward Gillian Roeca, who leads the team in goals with 10, then put the Jumbos up 2–1 in the 3rd quarter, a lead they would maintain until within the closing 10 minutes of the game.
Middlebury’s game-saving equalizer came in the 52nd minute, sending the game into overtime at 2–2. In overtime, Tufts didn’t manage to get a shot in, and in the 10th minute, Middlebury scored for its third consecutive NESCAC championship.
Despite the loss, Tufts coach Tina Mattera regarded the game positively, stressing that although she was disappointed with the result, she was proud of her team’s performance.
“They’re a great team, so I was really pleased with how we played,” Mattera said. “I mean obviously, I wish the result had been different, but I’m happy with how we played, I’m sad about the result.”
With the NESCAC championships behind them, the three teams that competed in the conference finals this weekend will now look toward their upcoming NCAA national tournament contests. No. 14 volleyball will host a regional against unranked Eastern Nazarene College. Also this weekend, men’s soccer will host its NCAA regional against SUNY-Maritime College, and the field hockey team will travel to Johns Hopkins for its NCAA regional.