Tough act to follow: Jumbos have titles to defend
Published: Wednesday, August 28, 2013
Updated: Sunday, September 1, 2013 16:09
Class of 2017: Before you go memorizing the names, hometowns and zodiac signs of every Beelzebub, there are a few other names that deserve your attention.
Bri Keenan. Allyson Fournier. Jo Clair. Hannah Park.
Those four helped Tufts capture its first two NCAA women’s team titles last year, raising the school’s all-time team total to three. (Men’s lacrosse won in 2010; sailing has also won numerous national events, though the team is not NCAA affiliated.) Now, for the first time ever, a pair of defending NCAA champs — field hockey and softball — will roam the Hill.
Keenan, a junior field hockey goalie and softball left fielder, is Tufts’ lone two-time champion — and she did it all in one academic year. Last fall, she won the starting goalkeeper job and allowed less than a goal per game, recording six shutouts and making five saves in the NCAA title game, a 2-1 victory over Montclair State. Then, in the spring, she hit .348, stole a team-high 12 bases and played sparkling defense en route to another ring.
“There are still some days where I’m like, ‘I can’t believe that happened,’” Keenan said earlier this month of her two championships. “It’s something that’s really hard to do no matter how talented your team is, and it requires a little bit of luck.”
Fournier, meanwhile, is one of the most dominant athletes ever to wear the brown and blue. The right-hander was named the NCAA Division III Athlete of the Year in June after going 25-1 with a national-best 0.59 ERA and 272 strikeouts in 154 innings. And she’s only a junior.
Clair, Fournier’s battery mate, is Tufts’ home run queen. The senior has hit 43 homers in her first three seasons, 11 more than the previous record holder, Lis Drake (LA ’03). Clair drove in a team-high 51 runs last year, pulling within 15 of the school RBI record. Expect her to shatter it in the spring.
And Park, a 5’1” sophomore field hockey forward, earned her place in Tufts lore with a heroic performance in the national championship game. Park came off the bench all season and had just three goals entering the final. But she scored both goals in the Jumbos’ come-from-behind win against the Red Hawks.
Last year’s championships came shortly after the opening of the 42,000-square foot Steve Tisch Sports and Fitness Center, a $16.6 million project funded mostly by Tisch (LA ‘71) himself. The timing may seem coincidental, but the new facility and the results on the field have much to do with one another.
“These national championships didn’t just come out of nowhere,” Director of Athletics Bill Gehling (LA ’74) said, noting the significance of the new athletics center. “They are the result of an awful lot of hard work over many years by our entire department, and certainly by those two programs.”
Medford/Somerville may not quite be Titletown(s), but in recent years Tufts has made a name for itself in the NESCAC (New England Small College Athletic Conference), the most competitive conference in Div. III.
“I definitely think that [the championships] put Tufts higher on the map for athletic credibility,” Keenan said. “A lot of people don’t think of Tufts as an athletic school; they think of us mostly for our academics. It showed the country that our athletic program is actually very good.”
Tufts ranked eighth for the 2012-13 academic year in the Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup standings, which award points based on performance in NCAA events. The biggest point scorers, of course, were the two national championship teams, but there were other highlights.
Men’s cross country placed seventh at NCAAs. Women’s basketball reached its second straight Sweet 16. Women’s tennis made the third round of the NCAA tournament. Both outdoor track squads tied for 22nd nationally, and men’s indoor track tied for 14th. Men’s swimming and diving placed 27th.
Men’s lacrosse reached the quarterfinals, the worst result since 2009 for a team that has become a perennial contender. Men’s soccer, a program on the rise under coach Josh Shapiro, clinched an NCAA tournament berth for the first time in over a decade.
What it all means is that, in the landscape of Div. III sports, Tufts is among the best. The Jumbos have earned five top-10 finishes in the Directors’ Cup in the last eight years. (The most recent standings included 444 schools.)
In the NESCAC, Tufts is still playing catch-up with Williams — which ranked first for the 16th time in 18 years — and its archrival Amherst (6th), as well as faux-rival Middlebury (3rd). (For more on that artificial rivalry, see the Nov. 30, 2011 column by Ben Kochman, LA ‘13.)
Field hockey and softball may not repeat, although they certainly have a shot. Field hockey will return four of its top six point scorers, and softball lost just three seniors and one positional starter to graduation.
But they don’t have to repeat to make the impact of their feats felt. National championships lead to national recognition, which in turn leads to increased interest from talented recruits.
“Terrific student athletes are attracted to becoming a part of programs that are successful, and there’s no doubt that winning national championships ... there’s a level of attention that brings,” Gehling said.
For that, he has Keenan and her teammates in field hockey and softball to thank.