Nor'easter News - Week 8
It’s (Nearly) Postseason Time
It’s late October, and that can only mean one thing: it’s almost time for the conference tournaments to start.
Most leagues have their conference tournaments start this weekend, so we’re in for a number of exciting games coming up. And with the pairings for the first round of the playoffs yet to be decided, the added uncertainty makes for an even more compelling final week of the regular season.
This week, instead of recapping a number of different games, I’m looking at a few teams who are in strong positions heading into the postseason. Each side has had its credentials questioned, faced adversity, and has responded in admirable fashioned.
Saturday saw Amherst and Wesleyan take part in a “game of the season” contender. After a scoreless first half, the host Cardinals broke the deadlock in the 63rd minute through Garrett Hardesty. To make matters worse for Amherst, they were reduced to 10 men after midfielder Andrew Orozco received his second yellow card in the 69th minute followed by Wesleyan making it a 2-0 game when Adam Cowie-Haskell scored in the 75th minute. However, if you’ve ever seen Amherst play, one thing is extremely evident: they never quit. And so it proved, as Amherst equalized with 2 goals in the last five minutes through Rohan Sood and Dane Lind. Charlie Gruner nearly won it for Wesleyan early in the second overtime, but his effort smacked against the bar. Then, in the 109th minute, midfielder Bryce Ciambella won the game for Amherst with a penalty kick, giving the Jeffs an invaluable 3-2 double-overtime victory.
While I said that I wouldn’t look at games in particular, that game was very much representative of Amherst’s strengths, weaknesses, and qualities. Unlike years previous, the Jeffs do not have an exceptionally steely defense. Moreover, Amherst doesn’t have Nico Pascual-Leone up top, and the scoring has certainly been spread this year. And while many were tempted to write the Jeffs off after a 3-0 humbling at Tufts on October 1st, Amherst has responded by winning every game since. Saturday saw the Jeffs staring down the barrel of defeat, rally to get themselves back in the game, and show grit and determination to win when a draw seemed to become all the more likely by the second. They now sit at 12-1-1 overall and top of the NESCAC at 7-1-1.
At the start of the season, few would have tabbed Amherst to repeat as NCAA Champions. Such hesitancy is well-founded, as, having watched both Trinity and Chicago, I would say the national champion could well come from either of the those sides. However, there is nothing more that Amherst coach Justin Serpone likes than being the underdog, and his team seems to relish it as well. Even without the accolades and star power of last year, this year could well result in yet another Amherst run.
Sitting at 3-3-1 on September 27th, Tufts’ season seemed to be in danger of being over before it had even started. Since then, though, the Jumbos have gotten a new lease on life, beating opponents such as Amherst, Middlebury, and, most recently, Williams. Tufts began the year with an injury to striker Nathan Majumder, who bagged 11 goals last season en route to First Team All-NESCAC honors, and many felt that the Jumbos would have trouble scoring without him in the starting XI. However, fellow striker Gaston Becherano has picked up the slack and then some, scoring 11 goals so far this season with a regular-season clash against Bowdoin (where Becherano scored in 2014’s 2-2 draw) still to come.
Indeed, the Jumbos, now 9-3-2 overall, have turned their season around from one that appeared to be a rebuilding year into a potentially successful season, and part of that is due to the development of a number of players. At the back, goalkeeper Scott Greenwood has improved immensely and makes a strong claim to being the best goalkeeper in the NESCAC. In front of him, center backs Conor Coleman and Daniel Sullivan have become established presences in the heart of defense, and seem to be playing well. And while Becherano has shouldered a significant amount of the scoring, there is also a group of promising freshmen like Gavin Tasker and Brett Rojas. As the regular season is winding down, Tufts seems to be heating up.
The one concern for Tufts is that—much like last year when Majumder was largely the Jumbos’ largest goal threat—11 of Tufts’ 24 goals have come from Becherano. In fact, the next-closest player in the goals chart is Majumder with 2 goals, while 11 players have 1 apiece. And while having the scoring spread out is the sign of a good team, that’s assuming that the weight is being evenly distributed: Tufts' 2014 National Champion had 9 players score 3 or more goals, illustrating incredible depth and perhaps explaining why teams had trouble shutting Tufts down that year. This could yield trouble if the Jumbos end up in the NCAA tournament against a highly-defensive side that double-teams Becherano and shuts off his service. However, if there’s anything that’s certain, it’s that Tufts is in a good run of form and is in a very good place with the NESCAC tournament around the corner.
Much like Tufts, Babson improved to 9-4-3 with its 7th win in its last 9 games. The Beavers downed WPI 2-0 on Saturday, and, should they win out against Bridgewater State and Emerson, will wrap up the top seed for the NEWMAC tournament. Rewind the clock to Sept. 18th, and most would have counted out Babson as a legitimate contender for the NEWMAC title after losing two games—at home to conference foe Coast Guard and away at NESCAC side Williams—in as many days, putting the Beavers at 2-4-1. Since then, the Beavers have played well, and have gotten results in close games, something that Babson has struggled with in recent years.
Even counting their last two conference championships, it’s fair to say that Babson is not the same dominant side that reached the Sweet 16 in 2010 and 2011. The Beavers aren’t running ragged over regional opposition, and don’t have a star player like Eric Anderson, who was a two-time D3soccer.com All-American selection. Moreover, Saturday’s game was only the second multi-goal win of the season for Babson, and I opined last week that perhaps the Beavers are operating at their maximum potential. However, observers of the Beavers in recent years will know that veteran head coach Jon Anderson is one of the best at getting the most out of his players. Most importantly, as we all know, soccer is a team game, and Babson appears to be—if not an extremely exciting or dynamic side—a very cohesive, functional team that knows how to get things done.
Heading into the conference tournament, Babson has all but locked up the top seed and, consequently, hosting rights. Interestingly enough, Babson has had much more success on the road in their conference tournament, winning the NEWMAC on the road at Wheaton (2014) and MIT (2015) the last two years, while losing at home to Springfield (2011) and MIT (2012) when the Beavers hosted the tournament, so Babson will have to buck that trend if they are to win their first NEWMAC crown at home since 2010.
Upcoming Game of the Week: Tufts vs. Bowdoin
While Tufts is the form team going into this game, Tuesday’s matchup should be a compelling watch for a number of reasons.
For all of the praise given to Tufts, the Jumbos are by no means home and dry as far as an NCAA bid is concerned. The Jumbos have five blemishes on their CV which, while no means catastrophic, they’ll want to keep from turning into six, especially considering Selection Monday is two weeks away.
In addition to preservation of its excellent form, Tufts will also be aware of this: Bowdoin has been its bogey team in recent years. In fact, Tufts has not beaten Bowdoin since 2013, a 1-0 home win which ultimately counted for nothing, as Bowdoin came back to Kraft Field and defeated the Jumbos on PKs in the NESCAC quarters. In 2014, the Jumbos appeared to be on their way to rectifying that loss, as they were 2-0 up at Bowdoin with 20 minutes left. However, the Polar Bears scored twice in a short span, and were able to hold on for a veritable 2-2 draw. Much like 2013, the teams squared off twice in Massachusetts last year, tying 0-0 in the regular season, and - once again - Bowdoin had the last laugh in the postseason, defeating Tufts 1-0. All in all, there is history between these teams, and - with Bowdoin fighting for its NESCAC playoff life - you can bet that both teams will be going for it.
Comments or feedback for the author? E-mail Henry Loughlin