3,470. That is the number of miles Washington and Lee, Ohio Northern and Colorado College will travel in sum to get to Bello Field for their matchups this coming weekend.
The Tufts men’s soccer team hosted the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament this past weekend, and with a 3–0 win against Bridgewater State on Saturday and a 2–1 win against Rochester on Sunday, they earned a spot in the Sweet Sixteen. As the sun set in Medford on Sunday, the news got even better for the Jumbos: Ohio Northern defeated national No. 1 Messiah 1–0, meaning the final sectional games will be hosted in Medford this weekend. For Saturday’s Sweet Sixteen matchups, the Jumbos will face off against a strong Washington and Lee side at 11 a.m., while Ohio Northern plays Colorado College at 1:30 p.m. The winners of the two contests will compete on Sunday at 1 p.m. for a spot in the Final Four.
Right from the beginning of Saturday’s game, it was clear that Bridgewater State’s opportunities predominantly arose from counterattacking play. While they had chances to score, it was the Jumbos who controlled play and had better quality opportunities. In just the 14th minute, the Jumbos converted one of these chances off a long throw-in from sophomore outside back Mateo Bargagna. Senior forward Mikey Brady was first to the ball and flicked it on for junior defender Taylor Feinberg, who tapped it in. This goal demonstrated the importance of scoring early as the game opened up with Bridgewater State being forced to push forward in pursuit of an equalizer.
The Jumbos’ offensive pressure only grew from there, and in the 40th minute, they found goal No. 2. When Bargagna played a service across the box, junior forward Ben Verner headed it back to sophomore forward Henry Perkins, who found the back of the net.
After halftime, in the 63rd minute, the side found a third goal to seal it, giving Coach Kyle Dezotell further freedom to get some starters rest before Sunday’s game. On the goal, sophomore midfielder Daniel Yanez sent the ball into the box off a corner. At the near post, Perkins headed it on to first-year center defensive midfielder Bijan Akhtarzandi-Das, who laid out in full extension to make it 3–0. Senior forward Sean Traynor discussed how utilizing their depth is crucial for weekends with consecutive games.
“I think one of the things we’ve always prided ourselves on is having one of the deepest benches in the entire country, and it makes the double weekends definitely a lot easier,” Traynor said. “Spreading out the minutes is really important. It helps give guys some confidence in games moving forward and then also ... it gives some of the older guys, like myself, a little bit of extra rest for a back-to-back weekend game.”
In the Rochester game, the Jumbos faced an opposing strategy that was more or less the same as Bridgewater State’s: Defensively, the Yellow Jackets sat in very deep and stayed compact with their line of confrontation being at about midfield. Offensively, despite showing glimpses of impressive build-up play and possession in their offensive third, they primarily relied on a counter-attacking style.
The beginning minutes of the match mostly consisted of the Jumbos moving the ball around and learning how to break down the Rochester defense, and in the 23rd minute, they did just that. Bargagna received the ball in the offensive third and played a beautiful ball to senior center midfielder Liam Gerken, who headed in to take the 1–0 lead. Shortly after, the Jumbos added to this lead as Bargagna played a low-driven ball into the box. This ball was met by Traynor, who made a late darting run and finished it with a cheeky, blind outside-of-the-foot flick to double the lead.
All weekend long, the Jumbos’ offense attacked the flanks. Traynor discussed how this has been a strength for them throughout the season.
“I think all of us are really confident going forward, and we think we have a lot of really dangerous players in our attacking group,” Traynor said. “[Attacking the flanks] is one of the ways that we’re the most dangerous, so through the flow of the game we were able to get the ball out wide and create stuff from there.”
In the second half, the Jumbos had a multiplicity of opportunities to score a third and seal the game. However, they were unable to put any into the back of the net. Rochester capitalized on this in the 73rd minute, when the ball fell to junior midfielder Avi Lamba’s feet after a challenged service, and he scored a deflected goal into the bottom right corner to cut the lead in half.
Throughout the rest of the match, Rochester pushed for an equalizer and almost found one. Fortunately for the Jumbos, their defense and several heroic late saves by sophomore goalkeeper Nikola Antic allowed them to hold on for the 2–1 win.
One factor that certainly helped propel the Jumbos to the Sweet Sixteen — and the three other NESCAC teams that made the tournament — was the practice they got during the regular season with two-game weekends against high-level competition.
“We came off a NESCAC weekend where we played Middlebury and Amherst, who are two of the best teams in the country, and put up two really good performances, and that not only helped us get used to it physically but also mentally,” Traynor said. “It gave us the confidence that you can put us up against anyone on a Saturday and anyone on a Sunday, and we have full faith that there’s going to be no drop off on that Sunday.”
The Jumbos will try to build off this confidence heading into a Sweet Sixteen and potential Elite Eight weekend at home.
“It’s just the mentality of us going into this week — bring the right energy and intensity to everything that we do this week from film to practice to recovery stuff, and then when the game comes on Saturday, we just [have] to be as united and together as we can, and we have full faith that the result will take care of itself,” Traynor said.