The Jumbos’ quest of their third consecutive NCAA Div. III Men’s Soccer title began a year later than expected on Tuesday night with a 1–0 overtime victory over the MIT Engineers. The two sets of bleachers at Bello Field overflowed with Tufts students and other spectators as a beautiful night before the first day of classes proved to be the perfect time to welcome fans back for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and to create an energizing home atmosphere for the players.
After a run of four national championships in the last six seasons, it seemed as though only the cancellation of Tufts athletics and the NCAA Div. III championships for fall 2020 due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic could derail the dominance of the Tufts men’s soccer program. In response, however, seven members of the 2018 and 2019 national championship teams chose to return for the 2021 season as “super seniors.” Experience is expected to be an elusive factor that favors Tufts this season, with sophomore soccer players at many schools across the country, in addition to first-years, yet to play an NCAA season.
Among the many familiar faces to feature for the Jumbos this season comes a new face of the program: head coach Kyle Dezotell. He replaces Josh Shapiro, who was hired as the head coach of the Harvard men’s soccer team after the 2019 season.
MIT had not faced a single shot in their opening two matches against Lesley University and Emmanuel College. However, a busy night between the sticks soon began for MIT goalkeeper Paarth Desai, as he was forced to dive to his right to save a hard shot from junior forward Sean Traynor in the sixth minute. This was the first and arguably the best of six saves made by Desai on the night.
In the 29th minute, sophomore forward Mikey Brady, in his first few minutes off the bench in his competitive debut for Tufts, got behind the MIT defense and fired off two shots in quick succession, which were both saved by Desai. MIT’s best chance of the first half came just minutes later when an open shot for MIT defender James Simon sailed wide of the target.
The two teams stood even stronger defensively in the second half, as neither of their best chances to score forced saves from the goalkeepers. In the 69th minute, Tufts defenders failed to clear the ball from harm’s way, instead allowing it to fall to MIT midfielder Garrett Robinson, whose scorching shot slammed against first-year goalkeeper Erik Lauta’s left goalpost. In the 85th minute, senior midfielder Aidan Welsh failed to hit the target on a header at the back post from a corner kick supplied by classmate Zach Seigelstein. This would be the last effort on goal before the Engineers and Jumbos headed to overtime tied at no goals apiece.
MIT’s only shot of the first 10-minute sudden-victory period of overtime rolled far right of the target for a Lauta goal kick. From that point forward, the Jumbos dominated possession and forced MIT into their own half. In the 99th minute, Tufts sophomore defender Gibson Campbell floated a cross into the 18-yard box, which was met by the head of six-foot-three-inch senior midfielder Calvin Aroh. Aroh’s header found Traynor, who had been left unmarked and neatly slotted the ball in at Desai’s near post for the winning goal.
“For most of the game, our best scoring opportunities had come off of services into the box,” said Campbell, whose improvisation led to the goal. “Especially in overtime, we felt it was important to put their back line under as much pressure as possible. I saw players making runs into the box and knew we could create a serious goal-scoring chance.”
The goal marked Traynor’s first goal, Campbell’s first goal contribution and Dezotell’s first win as head coach for the Jumbos.
Just moments after the game, on the topic of the goal, Traynor said in an interview, “Well, I was getting yelled at all game for not making anticipating runs off of our big man’s header, so as soon as I saw Big Cal go up for it, I knew it was gonna fall somewhere in the box and just got a little lucky with the bounce and was able to put it away. But honestly, Coach had told me to make that run multiple times. I hadn’t, and then the one time I do, I ended up scoring it, so I’m super happy that it worked out that way.”
Even with few moments worthy of individual recognition so far in his collegiate career, Traynor would’ve been just as happy if any of his teammates had instead been the one to score the overtime winner in front of the packed home crowd.
This team-first mentality was echoed by Campbell, who said, “Everyone on the team knew how important it was that we start off the season with a win, especially at home. I’m glad that I was able to play and contribute to the success of the team in my first game.”
The Engineers fell to 2–1 with the defeat. Their next game is at home on Saturday against Suffolk University. The Jumbos open their title defense 1–0 with the victory. Their next game is at home on Saturday against conference rivals Williams College.
Like MIT, Williams is another top academic institution in Massachusetts turning heads at the start of the 2021 season. After trailing Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute 2–1 at halftime, Williams scored four unanswered goals in the second half en route to a convincing 5–2 win.
RPI was ranked 7th in the National Pre-Season Poll, whereas Williams went unranked. The Ephs have lost their last seven games against the Jumbos, dating back to 2014, but they come into Saturday’s matchup at Bello Field in as good a position as ever to prove they can hang with the NESCAC and Div. III heavyweights.