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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, February 26, 2024

Field hockey falls just short of best season in program history


Though a loss in the national championship game on Nov. 20 marred what could have been a fairytale season, Tufts field hockey still finished with one of the most successful records in program history. The Jumbos ended their season 19-3 (8-2 in NESCAC play), going undefeated over a 10-game span from Oct. 16 through the NCAA semifinals on Nov. 19 while winning the NESCAC Championship and knocking off three teams ranked in the top five along the way.

The excitement was already brewing during the team’s preseason preparations back in August as work was finishing up on the brand new Ounjian Field, notable for its AstroTurf surface. The Jumbos had previously always practiced and played on the regular turf of Bello Field — a much thicker and slower playing surface — putting them at a distinct disadvantage when they had to travel to other NESCAC and NCAA schools and adapt to the faster AstroTurf surfaces.

Meanwhile, the team’s play in those early practices and scrimmages was already looking promising.

“I could tell from the start that this team was really special,” coach Tina McDavitt Mattera said. “We had a lot of talent but the team dynamic from the start was just excellent. Everybody was willing to do their job and work hard and play for the girl next to them. Our three seniors were awesome, but we also had seven juniors, and I think that they really played like upperclassmen — they were strong, they were confident, they knew what they were doing.”

The team started off its season hot, winning its first seven games and racking up a 27-3 goal differential over that period. The Jumbos' learning curve in adjusting to their new AstroTurf field proved to be relatively short, and their play was noticeably faster and their passing game crisper than in recent seasons.

While those early contests mostly saw the team take down a number of weaker opponents, it also rose to its first major challenge in just the second game of the season as the then-No. 12 Jumbos earned a 2-1 upset on the road over the then 10th-ranked Babson Bobcats on Sept. 13. Babson went on to make it to the Final Four before losing to eventual national champion Messiah in the NCAA semifinals.

After rising in the national rankings throughout September, the Jumbos saw their winning streak snapped in a tough Homecoming setback on Oct. 1. The visiting Amherst Purple and White erased two Jumbo leads to push the game into double overtime and then snuck in a late goal to upset the then-No. 6 Jumbos 3-2.

The Jumbos responded, however, with a resounding 2-0 win over a surging Hamilton Continentals side the next day and then scored arguably the most impressive upset of their season just a week later.Tufts headed up to Vermont on Oct. 8 to take on defending national champion and then-No. 3 Middlebury in a highly anticipated matchup.

Hamilton had already exposed Middlebury’s vulnerability with a 4-2 win just two weeks prior and, having just beaten Hamilton, Tufts came into the game with confidence. The Panthers scored first but the Jumbos settled down in the second half and battled back to take a 2-1 lead. The Jumbo defense shut the Panthers’ prolific offense down to hold on for the upset.

Senior co-captain forward Dominique Zarrella believed that the regular season win over Middlebury was “definitely” the team’s most impressive performance of the year.

“It was just pure grit — we totally outworked them, totally outplayed them and we just had more heart then them,” Zarrella said. “I remember saying after that game, ‘if you don’t think we can make it to the national championship after this game, then get out.’ That first Middlebury game was when I really realized [we were national championship contenders].”

A week later, Tufts lost to Conn. College in a wild weekend of upsets that shook up the NESCAC. Middlebury and Bowdoin — a perennial field hockey powerhouse whose only loss in 2015 came in the national championship game against Middlebury — both lost to lower-ranked opponents that day as well. Upsets aren’t uncommon in the NESCAC, the toughest conference in Div. III field hockey, as evidenced by the fact that seven NESCAC teams finished the year ranked in the top 20 nationally.

Tufts’ loss to Conn. was striking in that it featured an uncharacteristically low-energy performance. The Camels finished ninth in the NESCAC, but the Jumbos seemed lackluster and never put the underdogs away, allowing them to sneak in a late score in the final minute of regulation to steal a 1-0 upset.

The loss lit a fire under the Jumbos, though, as they showed a renewed determination in the second half of the season and would not lose again until the national championship. The team immediately responded by taking down Trinity, which finished the season ranked ninth in the nation, in a decisive 4-2 win.

“It was the game after we lost to Conn, which was really disappointing because we didn’t come out with the fire we wanted to — and the way we responded to that was really telling about our team,” senior forward Annie Artz said. “[I think the way we] bounced back the next day with that level of energy and determination says a lot about our team and the way we played most of the season.”

Tufts started to get hot as the NESCAC playoffs neared, downing Bowdoin 1-0 in the regular season finale to secure the No. 1 seed in the conference. Tufts beat Bates 2-0 in the quarterfinals and then — as the host of the final weekend of the NESCAC playoffs on Nov. 5-6 — flexed some offensive muscle, pounding Williams 5-0 in the semifinals on Saturday and then appearing easily in control against Middlebury in a 3-1 victory in the finals to win the program’s second NESCAC title.

Winning the NESCAC championship has become almost as elusive as winning the NCAA championship in recent years. Middlebury lost to Bowdoin in last year’s NESCAC final but went on to win the national championship; 2013 saw the same story but in reverse; and the only Tufts team to ever win an NCAA championship, the 2012 squad, didn’t even make the NESCAC championship game. So NCAA tournament play aside, winning the conference title distinguishes this season’s team among the decorated Tufts teams of the past decade.

Tufts’ No. 3 national ranking earned the team a bye for the first round of the NCAA tournament and allowed it to host the next two rounds. All tournament long, the Jumbo offense scored just enough to take the lead in each contest, while the defense — ranked second nationally in goals allowed per game — refused to concede a single goal before the championship game.

Tufts handled the University of New England, which featured the nation’s third highest scoring offense, 2-0 in the second round and then survived a hard-fought, 1-0 down-to-the-wire battle against Skidmore in the quarterfinals.

The Jumbos travelled to Geneva, NY for the Final Four on Nov. 19-20 and delivered two of their strongest performances of the season. Tufts’ defense shut down Salisbury — which featured Div. III's fourth highest scoring offense — in a 1-0 semifinal win and then stifled Messiah’s best-in-the-nation offense -- which averaged 4.51 goals this season -- through 100 minutes of play and two overtime periods in the national championship game. The momentum swung back and forth and the result could have gone either way, but Messiah prevailed 2-1 in the penalty shootout and claimed the title.

“I think [the loss] still stings pretty badly. We all are super competitive and wanted to come out with the win and we gave it everything we had,” Artz said. “So it still stings, even now more than a week out, but we’re still proud of the season we had. It’s not really disappointment in ourselves because we gave it everything we had — we know it could have gone either way—but [the sting is] still gonna last a while.”

Despite the loss, this season was undoubtedly one of the Jumbos' most successful in the history of the program.

“I think we’re starting to realize all the success we did have [this season] and all the accomplishments we still have [despite losing the national championship],” Zarrella said. “We were talking about how only two percent of [college field hockey players] get to play in a national championship game, and the other major accomplishments we had: beating Salisbury, which we had never done before; beating Midd twice — we never had a year like that before. So [we’re] not letting the championship loss overshadow all the good that did happen.”

Unlike in most of Tufts field hockey’s best previous seasons, coach Mattera noted that this year’s team succeeded not as much based on tremendous individual talent but because of a strong team dynamic and cohesive play in which the team proved much more effective than the sum of all its players' talent.

“I think in ’08 and ’09 I had some pretty talented and amazing players — I look back to Tamara Brown (LA ’11), Margi Scholtes (LA ’10), Taylor Dyer (LA ’12), some of those outstanding All-American players I had back in ’08, ’09 — I think in the past they had a little more talent on some of those teams,” Mattera said. “This team, it was that the team dynamic was outstanding.”

Tufts is graduating three prominent contributors in Zarrella, who led the team in scoring in 2014 and 2015, senior co-captain Nicole Arata, who helped anchor the team's lock-down defense, and Artz, who led the team in scoring this year. But Mattera and the three graduating seniors were all confident that next year’s squad will have the talent and the same kind of team dynamic displayed this season to get back to the national championship game.

Mattera was confident in that prediction.

“100 percent,” she said.