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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Thursday, April 18, 2024

Sullivan, Brown help Tufts advance to Sweet 16

Tufts senior midfielder Jason Kayne races a Bowdoin player for possession of the ball in a NESCAC quarterfinal match on Saturday, Oct. 31.

On Nov. 9, the Jumbos gathered and watched the NCAA Div. III tournament selection show, hoping that their name would be called. The selection committee decided to give Tufts a chance to defend its national title. Two games later, a pair of defeated teams probably wish that the committee had thought differently.

Tournament action kicked off this past weekend with Tufts playing Salisbury University on Saturday night in Montclair, N.J. After allowing an early goal, Tufts scored two unanswered goals and continued its season with a 2-1 win. The victory earned Tufts a date with the host, Montclair State, on Sunday evening. Two goals late in the game carried the Jumbos into the Sweet 16 in stunning fashion, beating the Red Hawks 3-2. The win marked the eighth straight win on the road for Tufts in NCAA tournament play, dating back to last season.

"I think [the comebacks] just show the maturity in our group," senior tri-captain midfielder Connor Brown said. "All the guys on our team have had the opportunity to play in big games over the past few seasons, and we have faith in our style and will stick to it till the end."

Unranked Tufts scored first on Sunday night against the host, No. 4 Montclair State. In the 27th minute, Tufts scored off a set piece. Senior midfielder Rui Pinheiro sent the ball to sophomore back Conor Coleman, who headed the ball past first-year goalkeeper Mike Saalfrank to give Tufts a 1-0 lead. 

Playing against a Montclair State that was averaging 3.52 goals per game -- good for fifth nationally -- Tufts did not get complacent. The Red Hawks' leading scorer -- junior forward Mike Olla -- had numerous chances in the first half. Tufts’ all-conference goalie, junior Scott Greenwood, held strong and did not allow a goal on Olla’s chances. Just as Greenwood was preserving the lead for Tufts, Saalfrank needed to make plays of his own to keep his team’s deficit at only one goal. One of his saves came in the 36th minute when junior forward and leading scorer Nathan Majumder sent a ball into the box. Senior tri-captain midfielder Jason Kayne was able to get a head on it, but Saalfrank reacted quickly to prevent a goal.

"Our back line, holding mids and Scotty have been tremendous all year long," Brown said. "Seeing how they handled their business against some really talented offensive players in Montclair gave the offense confidence to go and try to make plays on the other end of the field. They’ve been our rock all year long."

Despite the strong half from the Jumbos, the score at the end of the half was 1-1 after Montclair first-year forward Matt Hendrickson converted a penalty kick just inside the left post in the 44th minute. After halftime, the Red Hawks came out firing on all cylinders. Olla kept the pressure on the Tufts defense and was rewarded for his efforts in the 55th minute, beating Greenwood on a close shot inside the right post after receiving a ball from Hendrickson for his fifteenth goal of the season to pull his team ahead 2-1.

Tufts, however, would soon take control of the game. The team thought it had scored the equalizer when junior forward Gaston Becherano knocked a ball into the goal in the 76th minute. However, the line judge’s hand was raised, marking Becherano offside and negating the Jumbo goal. In the 81st minute, Kayne ripped a ball that sailed just above the crossbar, denying the Jumbos another chance at equalizing. This, however, was the last opportunity that the Jumbos would miss. 

The heroes of this game proved to be the same players who had helped Tufts rally past Salisbury the day before. In the 84th minute, Tufts earned a corner kick and senior defender Monil Patel ran to take it. He sent in a lefty kick into the box, where junior back Daniel Sullivan was waiting to head the ball off the left post and into the net to pull even at 2-2. The goal was Sullivan’s third goal of his career and second in two days; he had one goal in 33 previous career games.

"As I was heading to the corner to take the kick, Dan told me where he wanted me to play it," Patel said. "I knew he had an athletic advantage over everyone on the field, so I knew I just had to play the right ball and he would get there. Fortunately, he did."

It did not take long for Tufts to take the lead. Three minutes later, Brown possessed and rifled a shot from the left wing into the upper right-hand corner of the goal. Becherano had the assist, and Tufts had its first lead of the half with under five minutes to play. The only dangerous chance the Red Hawks had to equalize was Hendrickson’s shot off of a corner kick that went high with one minute to play. The Tufts defense shut the hosts down after Olla’s goal -- Greenwood did not need to make a save the rest of the game. When the final whistle blew, Tufts was on to the Sweet 16.

"Gaston found me with a nice pass, and I was able to create a couple feet of separation with my defender and get a shot off," Brown said. "I think it was that crisp New Jersey air that helped that ball stay under the crossbar."

To get to Montclair State, the team first needed to beat Salisbury University on Saturday night. This was Tufts’ first time back on the field since falling to Bowdoin in the NESCAC tournament, and the game got off to an inauspicious start for the visitors. In the eighth minute, Salisbury’s leading scorer, junior midfielder Leslie Umunna, and senior midfielder Dennis Runikera, Jr. were able to break past the Tufts defense for an early goal. Umunna got a pass across the face of the goal that Runikera, Jr. put past Greenwood to give the Seagulls a 1-0 advantage.

The Jumbos remained down a goal until the 24th minute, when they set up for a corner kick. Pinheiro sent the ball into the box, where Sullivan tucked it inside the left post to tie the score 1-1. At halftime, the Jumbos held the advantage in shots, seven to four, and was keeping the Seagull offense at bay.

Tufts came out strong in the second half and applied constant pressure to the Salisbury defense. Its efforts resulted in a goal in the 62nd minute, as Brown beat Salisbury senior keeper Drew Staedeli on the left side of the post for what would prove to be the game-winning goal. The Jumbos outshot the Seagulls 16-10 in the match, but Greenwood was only tasked with making three saves, while Staedeli needed to make eight.

"In past years, we have struggled to come back after going down a goal, so to do it twice in one weekend was incredible," Patel said. "We never gave up and kept putting pressure on both teams defenses, and with hard work and a touch of quality, we were able to get some crucial goals."

The Jumbos have now come from behind in two NCAA tournament road games, with Sullivan and Brown providing the vital goals in similar fashion each time. The team now enters the Sweet 16, where it will face Kenyon College, who enter the contest with an 18-1-1 overall record and the No. 5 ranking in the NSCAA poll. Kenyon won the North Coast Athletic Conference tournament in dramatic fashion over Ohio Wesleyan, who lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Kenyon defeated Westminster (Penn.) by a score of 1-0 in the first round and then beat the University of Chicago in penalty kicks.

"We are extremely confident," Patel said. "Both teams we have played were tremendous, and the competition will only get tougher. But the NCAA is a completely new season and one that we are familiar with. Anything can happen in a single-game elimination tournament, and we are confident that we can take on any team in the country."

Kenyon will host the game, which will take place on Friday at 11 a.m. The challenges of an away game will not faze the Jumbos, who seem perfectly comfortable pulling out road wins in November.

"I think everyone on our team thrives in the away games," Brown said. "That’s all we know as an NCAA team, and we love the environment. Our families and friends do an excellent job of supporting us, and the majority of our away games have felt like we were right at home."