Men’s soccer prepares for Final Four

Senior forward Joe Braun fights for the ball during Tufts' 4–0 win over Colby on Sept. 21. Evan Slack / The Tufts Daily

On Friday, the men’s soccer team will compete in its fourth Final Four appearance under coach Josh Shapiro in Greensboro, N.C. The team will face a familiar foe in the Calvin University Knights, who the Jumbos beat by one point in their last two NCAA Div. III championship finals appearances in 2016 and 2018.

Last year, the Jumbos beat the Knights by a final score of 2–1 to claim the NCAA title on Dec. 1, 2018. In the game, Calvin trailed for the entirety of regulation as both of Tufts’ scores were unmatched in the first half.

Shapiro spoke about his excitement in returning to Greensboro, emphasizing the grit the team has had this season on its path to the semifinals.

“I’m just super excited. You know, I think it’s exciting to get back to that stage and to know that you’re a game or two away from that chance to claim as much as you possibly can at our level,” Shapiro said. “First of all, I think it’s amazing that our group has been able to get back to this level, and all that we’ve achieved this year has been pretty special.”

For the Jumbos, the road to the Final Four has been one marked by a postseason filled with both aggressive play and tightly contested games. While Tufts thrived over SUNY Maritime College and Conn. College by respective scores of 5–1 and 3–1 in the opening round and the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament, last-minute game-saving goals propelled them past Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Washington and Lee University in the second and third rounds.

Following their Elite Eight win over Conn. College on Nov. 24, senior midfielder/forward and co-captain Gavin Tasker spoke in a press conference about the team’s excitement heading into the Final Four, while also stressing that the team must focus on preparing adequately for a tough Knights squad.

“Obviously it’s pretty special, really can’t take it for granted,” Tasker said. “But at the same time, we have a lot of work to do over the next two weeks, and I think right now we’re excited about this win but also a lot of work going forward.”

Calvin is coming into the game with a remarkable 23–1–1 record, with the only loss of the season coming against Ohio Wesleyan in the second game of the season on Aug. 31. Averaging 3.08 goals per game, the Knights have outscored their opponents by a margin of 77–15. 

Shapiro spoke about the respect he holds for the Calvin attack, stressing time and time again the offensive threat the Knights possess.

“I think Calvin is excellent, and I have a massive amount of respect for them. I really think they’re the best attacking team in the country,” Shapiro said. “They play beautifully branded soccer, and they’re going to ask amazing questions of us. But I also think that we’ve seen them, we know what they’re about, and we’ve got a veteran group that’s been to this stage before and we’re so excited to see what we think are two of the best teams in the country go at it.”

The experience of Tufts’ veteran group will be a huge contingency factor in Friday’s semifinal matchup. The senior class — which is comprised of a multitude of key leaders — has faced Calvin twice in their collegiate soccer careers. Both times, the Jumbos won the national championship as a result of the game.

Shapiro praised the leadership held by his senior class, emphasizing how he hopes they will find success in a potential third championship title in four years.

“They’ve just been great leaders and stewards of what we think Tufts soccer is all about,” Shapiro said. “Their track record, their four years have been exceptional, and I hope they’re able to finish it off in a way that is kind of a worthy feather in a cap of what’s been a wonderful career for that group.”

Overall, the senior class holds a record of 15–1–2 in NCAA tournament play. Shapiro commended the statistical success of the class.

“This senior class has been amazing,” Shapiro said. “Just from a statistical standpoint, with the results that they’ve achieved, I think they’re the winningest and most dominant senior group we’ve ever had in the program. Their record in NCAA tournament play is kind of ridiculous.”

Aside from the veteran status of the class, depth will play a key factor in the Final Four weekend for the Jumbos. With a polished squad of 28 players, the Jumbos will rely on a constant flow of aggressive play from the entirety of the roster. Seventeen players on the team have scored at least one goal this season.

With over half of the roster scoring this season, it’s uncertain where a potential game-saving goal could come from. Shapiro spoke about this spread of talent on his team, stating how he’s excited to see who will perform for his team this weekend.

“Our soccer quality in both layers of our team is really strong, and we’ve got guys in that second layer who have kind of really stepped up in the postseason here,” Shapiro said. “I think I’m really excited to see who’s going to pop up and be the difference-maker this weekend because I don’t think we know who that will be. There’s enough ball that it could be coming from any one of seven, eight or nine different guys.”

Against Calvin specifically, Shapiro cited the depth of his team as a recipe for past success.

“I think last year when we played them in the final, we played several more guys then they did. I think they played 13 or 14 and we played like 20,” Shapiro said. “I think they’re going to stress us, and we’ll be asked to play in both directions with intensive energy for at least 90 minutes. We’re hopeful that our depth can work to kind of wear them out a little bit but also create problems for them just in the run of the play.”

With a win over Calvin, Tufts would advance to the NCAA Finals. The other semifinal game will occur before Tufts’ matchup between Amherst and Centre College. Amherst is one of just two teams to beat Tufts this year.

Originally, the team had hoped to face Amherst in the NESCAC finals. However, because Amherst lost to Middlebury in the semifinal of the conference tournament, that rematch never happened. When asked about the possibility of an all-NESCAC championship final matchup, Shapiro stated how the team must first prepare for a tough Calvin matchup.

“I think they know that we have our hands full with Calvin,” Shapiro said.  “We need to be focused on that, but I think no one is going to be disappointed if it’s us and Amherst in the final.”

Kickoff for the Final Four matchup is set for 7:45 p.m. on Friday. The game will be broadcasted live from Greensboro, N.C.