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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Jumbos gear up for an eighth consecutive NESCAC title

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Last May, Tufts graduated 15 seniors who made up one of the most successful classes on the lacrosse team in history. Although they lost 14-13 to the Salisbury Sea Gulls in the final seconds of the NCAA Championship, losing out on the chance to be the first team in history to win three consecutive national titles, they set the standards of the program higher than they had ever been before.

On May 29, 2016, in Philadelphia, Pa., the Jumbos went eight goals down in the third quarter against the Sea Gulls. Despite the fact that Tufts scored seven unanswered goals to cut the deficit 12-11 in the final quarter, each team went on to score two apiece, with Salisbury eventually outlasting Tufts.

Last season, the Jumbos went 9-1 in conference match-ups. They subsequently retained their NESCAC crown for the seventh year in a row by defeating the Middlebury Panthers in the championship game, 20-14. The heartbreak in the NCAA championship was preceded by four tournament victories, each with margins of victory greater than 10 points. These victories granted those with less prior playing time more opportunities to make their mark on the team.

Conor Helfrich (LA ’16) and John Uppgren (LA ’16) were last year’s most notable graduates, having both been the first Tufts players in history to be picked in the draft for Major League Lacrosse. Other players such as Jake Gillespie (LA ’16) emerged as stars in their own right. Gillespie, who had never started a game before his senior year, went on to become the second-highest scorer in the entire conference with 61 goals, trailing only Uppgren (who scored 73 goals of his own).

Tufts also reaped the benefits of having one of the top goalies in the NESCAC, Alex Salazar (LA’16), who led the conference in saves.

Uppgren and classmate Jon Sax (LA ’16) have both gone on to be assistant graduate coaches for the team, and have the option of continuing to take classes at Tufts. Helfrich, meanwhile, is a volunteer assistant coach for the team.

This year's team enters the season with high expectations, as pre-season prognosticators have anointed Tufts as the No. 3 team in the country. The Jumbos' 10-man senior class is led by co-captains defensemen Tucker Mathers and Tyler Olney, both of whom were regular starters last season. The group also includes the NESCAC’s third highest scorer attackman Zach Richman (with 58 goals during the season), who set the record for most goals in a game in the NESCAC with eight last year against the Williams Ephs. Senior attackman Austin Carbone equaled the record against Ithaca in the NCAA tournament.

“It’s our role on the team now to step up and fill the leadership role,” Mathers said. “Our senior class is really united so it’s always a group decision and we are not on a pedestal above everyone else. The senior class are the leaders of the team.”

The program welcomes 13 first-years who will no doubt make an impact on the highly-competitive team.

“The freshman are great, it's so awesome to see them come in with full energy,” Mathers said. "They are relearning lacrosse because they have to relearn Tufts lacrosse culture. We’re lucky that in the fall we had the chance to go from walk, jog, to run with them. They’re really bought in, working hard and trying to understand how things work. They’re hungry.”

Notably, the program has a new head coach, Casey D’Annolfo (LA ’06), who was hired this fall. The previous head coach, Mike Daly, served in the role for 17 years before leaving Medford in July to take the head coaching position at Brown University, a Div. I program. D’Annolfo, who played under Daly during his Tufts career, is unlikely to introduce significant changes to the way the program is run.

“The expectations haven't changed,” D’Annolfo said. “We are still working hard every day and paying attention to details and fundamentals. If we get a little better each day, we will have the potential to achieve what we hope for. The biggest difference between this year and last year is that this year's team, overall, lacks in-game experience -- but that will come with time.”

The Jumbos travel to Hoboken, N.J. this Saturday to play the Stevens Institute of Technology Ducks (3-0). The annual match-up has become tradition for the Jumbos, and it partially functions as a sort of alumni event for all the of New York-based program alums to return to watch the first game of each new season.

“We talked as a team about how we know we have opponent number one on Saturday, but we aren’t even worried about that until Friday,” Olney said. “We’re just focused on ourselves because at the end of the day that’s all we should worry about.”

Last year, the Jumbos overcame the Ducks 14-13, with Austin Carbone scoring three times. During the matchup, the Jumbos won 20 of 28 face-offs thanks to Helfrich, who was widely regarded as one of the leading face-off experts in Div. III and in all of collegiate lacrosse. Now with him on the sidelines, the Jumbos will have to work hard to fill Helfrich's large shoes.

“As a team we have a mentality that everyone is ready to do their job,” Olney said. “Everyone sees [Helfrich], but they don’t see people at practice every day working really hard at all these different positions. There’s a mentality that if the starter leaves or someone gets injured, and there’s a spot open, people are ready to fill those roles.”

Mathers, who would occasionally replace Helfrich at the face-off position, went 48-of-87 during the season. However, since he is a long-stick man, the team may not necessarily want him taking all of the face-offs.

The Jumbos' reputation precedes them, but with at least eight starting lineup positions that need to be filled, they have their work cut out for them. However, given its successes in the past, the team is on track to do just as well as they have for the past seven seasons.