Before Tuesday’s home matchup against Endicott, the men’s lacrosse team had played five games in a row on the road and, after dropping one in overtime to then−unranked Trinity, had fallen out of the USILA’s top 10. But by Tuesday morning, the No. 7 Jumbos again found themselves among the Div. III elite and took to Bello Field that afternoon for the first time in over two weeks with a chance to do two things: confirm their status as national contenders, and reap revenge on the only non−conference team to beat them in last year’s regular season.
With an 11−5 thrashing of the Gulls, they did both.
Tufts dominated from the start, as two freshmen attackmen combined for the first goal of the game in just 31 seconds. Chris Schoenhut notched the goal on an assist from Cole Bailey, who would go on to lead the Jumbos with two goals and two helpers. Though Endicott answered with an unassisted tally just over two minutes later, Tufts grabbed the reigns at the end of the first quarter in exciting fashion.
Senior co−captain Sean Kirwan, who has been sidelined with a severe ankle sprain all season, limped onto the field for a man−up opportunity ready to accept his first feed of 2012. Kirwan quickly reminded everyone what the Jumbos had been missing, taking a pass from classmate attackman Jordan Korinis on the crease and putting it in to give Tufts a 2−1 lead in the last minute of the period.
The goal not only seemed to spark the Jumbos’ offense — which reached double digits for the fourth game in a row — but also electrified a crowd that instantly remembered just how effective Kirwan, Tufts’ leading goal−scorer last year with 66, can be.
“To get back on the field and contribute was great,” Kirwan said. “It’s been a long month and I’m happy to finally get back out there and help the team out in any way possible. As far as playing time goes, there is really no way to tell. My ankle feels better every day and I just need to focus on what I’m doing to get consistently better and trust that my coaches will make the best decision for the team come game time.”
An invigorated Tufts squad took the second quarter 3−1, with senior co−captain midfielder Kevin McCormick, sophomore attackman Beau Wood and senior midfielder Ben Saperstein pushing the Jumbos’ halftime lead to 5−2.
After the break, Tufts continued its stellar play on both sides of the ball. The offense went on a 5−1 streak to open the second half, while the defense took the third quarter ground ball battle 11−6 and allowed Endicott to complete just five of eight clear attempts.
“We as a defense, along with the rest of the team, just like to focus on being the same guy every day,” sophomore defenseman Dan Alles said of the team’s success in the backfield on Tuesday. “The guy who loves challenges. The guy who is never satisfied and is always chasing perfection. [Endicott] handed us a tough loss last year, and we were given another opportunity to play against them on an awesome night on our home field. How lucky are we?”
Bailey opened the second−half scoring on a feed from Saperstein. The Gulls answered less than a minute later to make it 6−3 with 11:35 left in the third, but the Jumbos closed the visitors out from that point on as sophomore Peter Bowers, Wood, McCormick and Bailey scored the next four goals unassisted to wind down the clock to 5:43. Wood traded one more goal with Endicott in the third to make it 11−4 before coach Mike Daly tapped into his reserves.
The win displayed a Tufts squad reminiscent of the past few years, with Kirwan on the crease — though only part−time on Tuesday — a high−assist offense and an aggressive defense. That winning combination held Endicott to 31 shots on goal, forced 23 turnovers and allowed just 17 of 27 clears to be completed, putting Tufts atop the NESCAC in goals, assists, shots, points and ground balls per game.
On top of all that, the victory came at the perfect time: The Jumbos now have a four−game NESCAC slate to close out the regular season, starting tomorrow at home with the team’s biggest conference matchup this year, against No. 13 Amherst.
“This is what we play for. There is nothing like being out on your home turf,” Alles said. “Especially for our seniors and for this team as a whole, we are only guaranteed so much. We have to earn the right to keep this season going, and I’m confident in our guys and our coaches to make this thing last as long as we can. We expect to win games, and we expect to keep playing, but there is going to be a lot of blood, sweat and tears in there to make sure it goes the right way.”
The Lord Jeffs sit behind the Jumbos in most categories and have lost three of their last four games to unranked Wesleyan, Hamilton and Springfield. But Amherst could still pose a challenge. The Lord Jeffs have three of the league’s top five point−scorers and the best shooting percentage in the NESCAC, and they kill more penalties, give up fewer man−ups and have turned the ball over 38 times fewer than the Jumbos.
Amherst’s offense strongly resembles the Jumbos’, which should bode well for a Tufts team that is well−versed in stopping a scoring trio like its own.
“As far as practicing against guys like Beau and Cole, I think that playing against guys like that day in and day out is always great when preparing for any game,” Alles said. “We all love to compete, and we challenge each other every day. But when it comes down to it, I think the real credit goes to the ... teams who work so hard to challenge the offense and defense in the practices leading up to the games.”
On Saturday, all eyes will be on the matchup between Tufts’ and Amherst’s offensive tandems: McCormick, Wood, Bailey and possibly Kirwan versus sophomore Devin Acton and seniors midfielder Evan Redwood and attackman Cole Cherney. With Tufts allowing fewer goals this season and winning more faceoffs than in the past — not to mention riding a four−game winning streak while Amherst has floundered — it seems the Jumbos should have the upper hand.
With the NESCAC tournament approaching, a win tomorrow would have significant implications.
“Coach always says, ‘We need a one−game win streak,’” Kirwan said. “Right now, we are focused on a very good Amherst team and no one else. They have our full attention.”