December 7, 2019

Back-to-back titles for Tufts

By D3soccer.com Contributor

Photos by Dave Hilbert, d3photography.com

 

Tufts is the class of Division III soccer and proved it again yesterday by winning its fourth national championship in six seasons. The Jumbos become just the third program to win at least four titles, and all three did so in six years or fewer. UNC Greensboro won five titles from 1982 to 1987 before moving up to D-II and eventually to D-I. Messiah was even more dominant, winning ten titles from 2000 to 2013 (and another in 2017). Tufts’ 2014 title run, which included a win over Messiah, seemed to signal the end of the D-III “dynasty.” Instead, the Jumbos just seized the crown—and they proved it on a cold Saturday night in Greensboro. Facing familiar NESCAC foe in Amherst, Tufts avenged a regular-season loss and won another championship with a combination of smothering defense, timely finishing, and a large slice of luck.

First Half

The opening 15 minutes put to bed any thought of a repeat of Friday night’s blowout games. The opening exchanges instead were a classic “feeling-out” period--unusual for familiar teams from the same conference. Amherst took a safety-first approach in the back, clearing the ball long any time a Tufts player drew near. And Tufts, under constant pressure from a fired-up Amherst squad, tried to break through the lines early with longer passes. Neither team had much success, but one clear pattern emerged: Tufts was not going to let Amherst’s German Giammattei beat them. The sophomore had scored an eye-popping 26 goals against great competition coming into the title game, including a hat-trick in Friday night’s 3-0 win over Centre and both goals when Amherst beat Tufts back in October. This time around, the Jumbos made sure that at least two players came at Giammattei every time he touched the ball, with that number climbing to three and even four in the early stages.

The only chance in the early stages fell to Tufts senior Joe Braun. Classmate Gavin Tasker executed a nifty backheel roll to give Brauns some space on the left side of the box, but Amherst keeper Bernie White was well-positioned and made the save. As the half progressed, Tufts gained a measure of control. Its midfield, anchored by junior Calvin Aroh, began to push Amherst deeper into its own end. And Braun served as the perfect target forward, occupying Amherst’s center back and laying the ball off to allow Tufts to keep possession and bring more players into attack. Tufts earned a series of corners, but the only outcome of note was Braun glancing a header well wide of the post.

But the game sprung into life when Tufts took the lead in the 25th minute. Drew Stern found Tasker making a run from the outside towards the left side of the 18-yard box. Tasker’s first touch was poor and gave Amherst a chance to clear, but the attempted tackle ricocheted off Tasker’s shins back into his path. Tasker took his chance and used a slick touch to pull the ball beyond another defender onto his left foot, then hit a perfectly angled shot that bounced off the far right post and into the net. Amherst tried to respond, but the next 10 minutes highlighted Tufts’ defense. Not just its backline, either. Every Jumbo, starting with Braun upfront, put Amherst under pressure any time the Mammoths had the ball. By surrounding Amherst’s forward players, Tufts forced them to make a decision or turn the ball over before Amherst could pull more players into attack.

Amherst finally put its first shot on goal through Damon Lind in the 36th minute. The senior’s attempted backheel to Giammattei was blocked right back to him, and Lind went for the volley but could only strike the ball tamely at Jumbo keeper Erich Kindermann. Amherst had pumped long free kicks and throw-ins towards Kindermann’s net all half, but the sophomore had handled everything with ease. That changed a minute later. A long throw-in saw the ball pop straight up in the air, and Kindermann came to claim it, but he flapped at it, and the ball fell straight to Giammattei. As he wound up to strike, though, the referee bailed out Kindermann and Tufts with a generous free kick.

Amherst ramped up the pressure as the half came to a close. In the 42nd minute, Giammattei nudged a Tufts defender away as a cross came in and had a clear sight of goal, but Tufts’ defender Drew Stern came flying in to poke the ball away. Giammattei volleyed over soon after and then nearly had a breakaway on a defense-splitting pass from Ada Okorogheye, but Kindermann was alert and quick off his line to preserve Tufts’ lead. Giammattei finally got a clean look at goal in the 44th minute, but Kindermann was again up to the task, tipping over a shot that looked headed for the roof of the net on the goalkeeper’s near side. Tufts went into the half with the lead, but Amherst seemed to be in the ascendency.

Second Half

The Jumbos recovered some lost momentum at halftime and came out the stronger side early in the second stanza. Tufts had a possible penalty claim in the 48th minute. Braun posted up and seemed ready to head in Tufts’ second goal, but Amherst center back Felix Wu grappled with the Jumbos’ senior and did just enough to put him off. Senior Zach Lane had been quiet for Tufts in the first half, but sprung into life in the second with an early shot, albeit one right at White in the Amherst goal. The Jumbos’ defense picked up where it left off. Many people have suggested the best way to break down Tufts’ defense is by attacking quickly, but the Jumbos make that nearly impossible. They pressure balls into target players and make it almost impossible to play long balls over the top. And the few times Giammattei or another Amherst player escaped pressure; Tufts would commit tactical fouls to prevent any sort of counterattack. The strategy worked, and Amherst junior Gabe Gitler epitomized the Mammoths’ frustration by launching a pair of hopeful strikes over and wide of the goal from more than 25 yards out.

Amherst had started to resort to hopeful long balls into the box, but one almost worked. Kindermann again found himself in a tough position when he came for a long cross but punched the ball directly to the feet of Amherst’s Okorogheye on the edge of the box. With Kindermann scrambling, Okorogheye tried to create an angle to get the ball on frame, but Tufts did a great job to cut off any angle and eventually clear the ball.

The Jumbos then caught a game-defining break. Braun and Wu had been tussling in the box on every set piece, and emotions finally boiled over. Braun was sandwiched in between a pair of defenders and, clearly frustrated, elbowed Wu in the face in full view of the referee. The outcome could, and probably should, have been a straight red card, forcing Tufts to defend its lead with ten men. Instead, the referee opted for yellow, and Braun stayed on the field.

Amherst took control of the match from that point, and Tufts struggled to get out of its own end. Amherst freshman Ignacio Cubeddu executed a wonderful pirouette turn on the right side of the box and gained the end line, only for his cross to elude Giammattei and Okorogheye. Tufts then misheaded a clearance straight to Amherst’s Sebastian Derby, but Kindermann came to the rescue, pushing his strike from 12 yards over the top of the goal. Amherst’s Kyle Kelly was the next Mammoth to have a go, and again Kindermann was up to the task. The keeper took an unusual position on a corner kick by lining up much closer to the back post, but the gamble paid off when Kelly rose at the back post and headed the ball into Kindermann’s waiting arms.

Champions make teams pay for missing opportunities, and Tufts ruthlessly punished Amherst’s profligacy in the 74th minute. Tufts’ Alex Ratzan used some tight control and stop-smart dribbling on the right wing to create some space and clipped a cross towards the middle of the box. The ball was just too high for a leaping Amherst defender, but Tufts’ Max Jacobs was perfectly positioned to bring the ball down and prod it past White for a 2-0 lead. Again Tufts benefitted from a no-call, as replays showed Jacobs clearly brought the ball down with his left hand. But the scoreboard read 2-0 regardless.

That would be more than enough for Tufts, who almost iced the game several times over the next few minutes. First Lane hit a cross-shot towards the back post towards a waiting Tasker, only for Amherst’s Andrew Barkidjija to deflect the ball out for a corner. Then Aidan Welsh could only fire straight at White when open inside the box. Finally, Braun crossed for Lane, but his touch around the goalkeeper ran out of bounds. Amherst huffed and puffed but simply could not find the net. The Mammoths had to settle for dangerous crosses, a few shots that went wide, and a tame header right at Kindermann. With time winding down, Braun somehow avoided a red card (again) after scything down an Amherst center back, then Tasker failed to convert when clean through on goal. The clock soon hit 0:00, and Tufts and Coach Josh Shapiro celebrated their fourth title in six years.

Final Verdict

Games between elite teams, especially championship games, come down to the margins. The difference between Tufts and Amherst on Saturday was Tufts’ ability to capitalize on its opportunities. Tasker got a fortuitous bounce in the buildup to his goal, but he still had to create the space and slide a finish off the post even after that bit of luck. And Jacobs handled for his goal, but his positioning was perfect in the box, and he managed to bring down and finish a cross that appeared to be too high for him. Amherst, which finishes 19-2-2, will leave dissatisfied with any number of moments from the game, but the Mammoths have no reason to hang their heads and will bring back much of this squad next year to challenge again. Tufts closes out 2019 with a 22-2-2 record and can enjoy another year of its incredible reign at the top of Division III soccer.

  


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