The Tufts men’s varsity soccer program has swiped four NCAA championship titles in its past six seasons, most recently taking home the crown with a 2–0 victory over Amherst in 2019. The common denominators among these titles have been traditional preseasons, schedules consisting of full-contact competitive play and former head coach Josh Shapiro. In soccer, many coaches say that players should know what they’re going to do two plays ahead. A pandemic was never thought to be one of those plays.
Just over a year ago, Kyle Dezotell was hired as the new varsity coach after Josh Shapiro took the head coaching job at Harvard University. In an interview, coach Dezotell said he was able to transition smoothly into Tufts’ men’s soccer program thanks to the commitment of his players. Despite the pandemic-induced cancellation of the fall 2020 season, Dezotell and his athletes have vowed not to use the lost season as an excuse for poor performance in the upcoming fall.
“It’s been interesting, to say the least, but thankfully, I think this program is in such a strong position. It has such a strong player-led culture and leadership that, even though it’s been pretty weird for me, I think our program and our players have fared just fine,” said Dezotell.
Many players have decided to take a semester off to preserve their eligibility as full-time students at Tufts. This outflow has affected recruiting and training for the men’s program.
“Certainly next fall … the numbers are going to be interesting because we have the entire senior class coming back for next year. And when building a roster you wouldn’t be planning on seven extra players, even after you brought in your recruits, so [we have] … like 35 or 36 players on the roster for next fall, which is definitely too many.”
Derek Enge, a senior on the men’s soccer team, has decided to stay for a fifth year despite being eligible for graduation as early as last fall. He’s taken a leave of absence for the entirety of the 2020–21 academic year, meaning he has not trained with the team since the start of the pandemic.
“I decided to stay to play for an extra year, because I had a lot of discussions with my parents, with friends and with people that are currently working,” Enge said. “I basically decided that this is a pretty unique time in your life and you’ll only get four years to play soccer. I talked to a bunch of people, all of them had said, ‘Look, if I could go back to that time and play again, I would easily do that.’”
Despite inconsistent access to gyms, fields and fellow athletes, Enge and his teammates have found ways to adapt and continue to train effectively. In addition to running and individual conditioning, Enge, for example, has been training with several local soccer groups.
Coach Dezotell has a lot of pride in the team’s student leadership. For Enge, a team captain, his physical absence has been a challenge, but it has not kept him from fulfilling his leadership role.
“I’ve tried to stay as involved as possible with the team. [It’s been] especially weird being one of the captains on the team and not being able to be there on a daily basis. Helping the team and having an impact on some of the new guys has been pretty tough. But I’m looking forward to the summer [and] hopefully being able to play with some of the guys that are also in Boston, and then next fall as well,” said Enge.
Coach Dezotell has reminded his players that they need to be conscious of other Div. III programs outside of the NESCAC that are playing games this spring. For example, Calvin University, a Div. III program that Tufts has consistently played in the NCAA tournament, traveled to South Bend, Ind. on March 16 to face the University of Notre Dame, a top tier Div. I program. Calvin lost by just 1–0.
While peer institutions like Calvin are playing games this spring, Tufts men’s soccer has been limited to groups of 10 and has been doing small-sided drills. The team hasn’t been able to play 11-on-11 on a full field since before the pandemic.
“It’s really important that players find opportunities to play competitive 11 v. 11 games this summer,” Dezotell said. “We’ve just encouraged guys that aren’t here, who are taking time off, to really start to ramp it back up. Because, you know, while I think guys in this program know what they need to do to be ready when August comes around, it’s also so unique in that … most of these players will not have played competitive soccer for nearly two years.”
Will Raphael, a junior on the team, has played with the Sandwich Knights of the Cape Cod Amateur Soccer League for the past two summers to prepare for previous fall seasons. Raphael is unsure where he might play this summer, due to the time he is committing to an internship in Boston.
“I’m going to try to play on a team this summer, and at the very least practice with organized teams in the area,” Raphael said. “But I’m not entirely sure of the commitment level yet. I know that we definitely encourage our players to play in the summer and it’s something that’s generally expected of all our players.”
Max Clivio, a first-year on the team, decided to take the spring semester off because there were more competitive opportunities in his home town of Miami, Fla., where there are fewer public health-related restrictions. Over the summer he will play with the Waterhouse Football Club in Kingston, Jamaica.
“It’s a high-level team with lots of players trying to play overseas in Europe and many of them are successful,” Clivio said of the Waterhouse Football Club. “It’s a very physical league … So it’s something new, but I think it’s a good way to adjust to the college game.”
As the year without competition comes to an end, the Tufts men’s soccer program is eagerly awaiting the fall season. According to Dezotell, they’ll be ready.
“I have no doubt that our players will be ready. I think, at the end of the day, we also have built-in advantages in the NESCAC, too. We have really good players that are really driven humans and really good students, and they’re going to do what they need to do to be ready,” Dezotell said. “We’re going to be just fine and we’re going to be ready.”