The Tufts men’s soccer team has rarely entered the NESCAC Tournament as underdogs. They were NESCAC champions in 2017, 2019 and 2021, winning every championship game they participated in. However, following a 2–1 victory over Bowdoin in the quarterfinals, the Jumbos were considered heavy underdogs entering the semifinals, as they faced the undefeated Middlebury Panthers, the third-ranked team in the United Soccer Coaches Poll. Nonetheless, the Jumbos looked to make a statement entering the tournament’s concluding weekend on Nov. 4.
“I don’t think we ever see ourselves as underdogs, but I definitely think to the rest of the country, especially this weekend … we felt like we had something to prove,” sophomore midfielder Daniel Yanez said.
Two weeks earlier, the Jumbos traveled to South Street Field in Middlebury, where they were soundly beaten 3–0 by the Panthers. Undeterred heading into the semifinal, the Jumbos were on the attack from the start. Three minutes in, the Panthers garnered a free kick just outside the Jumbo 18-yard box. The Jumbos cleared it, initiating a counterattack. Middlebury first-year defender Owen Davis ended the counter, and cycled the ball back to senior goalkeeper Ryan Grady. Grady, however, missed the ball, and it rolled into the back of the net, giving the Jumbos a 1–0 advantage.
Most of the remaining first half was even, with the Panthers marginally outshooting the Jumbos 4–3 before the five-minute mark. But, with 5:05 left on the clock, Jumbo sophomore defender Mateo Bargagna was cautioned with a yellow card. Panther first-year midfielder Colin Dugan beautifully curled the free kick to the back post. Panther junior defender Luke Madden rocketed a header into Jumbo sophomore goalkeeper Nikola Antic’s net. At the half’s conclusion, the game was wide open, with both sides confident they could produce the winning effort.
The opening of the second half was a back-and-forth contest. Ten minutes in, though, a moment of magic happened. Having played the ball out from the back, Jumbo senior forward Sean Traynor maintained possession in the final third down the right sideline. Traynor cut inside and laid the ball off on the edge of the box for Yanez. Yanez took one touch before unleashing a sublime curling effort into the top corner of the net. The superb shot left Grady stunned, giving the Jumbos a 2–1 edge.
“The build-up was great … and then I got the ball [at] the top of the box and was kind of just [thinking] ‘why not?’” Yanez said. “When that goes in, it’s like pure bliss. The best feeling in the world is finishing the game like that.”
The Jumbos weathered the storm of Panther attacks thanks to resolute defending from Antic and their back line. At the final whistle, the Jumbos had done the impossible. The undefeated had become the defeated. No. 4 in the NESCAC had toppled No. 1. No. 20 nationally had bested No. 3.
Despite their incredible win, the Jumbos could not celebrate too much, as a date with the Amherst Mammoths in the NESCAC championship game awaited them.
The Mammoths had handed the Jumbos their only other loss of the season on Sept. 17, a 3–1 drubbing at Bello Field. Like Tufts, Amherst had only lost two games, one to Connecticut College and one to Babson. Amherst entered the final ranked 13 nationally.
As they had throughout the NESCAC Tournament, the Jumbos began the game fearlessly. Junior defender Taylor Feinberg forced Mammoth senior goalkeeper Max Landa into action three minutes in, with Landa making a leaping grab off a toe-poke stemming from a corner. Ten minutes in, junior midfielder Ethan Feigin nearly put the Jumbos ahead, as he pounced on a loose ball but hit the post. Senior defender Max Clivio also nearly gave the Jumbos the lead, as his long-range bid fizzled wide. Overall, the first half was balanced, with the shots being equal at eight apiece. Amherst’s primary offensive vehicle was first-year forward Mohammed Nuhu, who looked dangerous any time he entered the offensive zone. As with the semifinal, it was anyone’s game when the first half concluded.
Eight minutes into the second half, the Jumbos lost the ball to Mammoth junior midfielder Niall Murphy. Murphy played the ball to Nuhu, who used his dazzling skill to beat three Jumbo defenders while cutting inside, the ball dangling from his foot on a string. He directed the ball towards the far post, where it caromed off the inside of the post and trickled in. While it can be debated whether Nuhu intended a cross or a shot, there can be no debate over his majestic skill and terrifically placed effort.
With Nuhu’s goal, the Mammoths gained a 1–0 advantage they would never relinquish. The Jumbos almost equalized with 30 minutes remaining when Landa deflected Traynor’s shot and senior forward Mikey Brady headed the rebound wide.
“I think, although the goal didn’t come, we played the rest of the game with a lot of belief that we could make something happen,” Yanez said. “[When] you’re playing for a trophy, [you] keep fighting.”
In the end, the Mammoths rushed the field at full time. It was Amherst’s second consecutive NESCAC crown and seventh overall. The Mammoths’ victory also marked the third occasion that they claimed back-to-back NESCAC titles.
“Although the game didn’t go as I think we would have wanted, I’m pretty proud of the way we played,” Yanez said. “I think our energy the past couple of weeks has been really good and something that we can hopefully keep up in the NCAA Tournament.”
While the loss was disappointing, the weekend, overall, was successful. The Jumbos took down the NESCAC’s top side, handing them their first loss. Moreover, the Jumbos proved that they deserve a seat at the table with the country’s best teams. They were rewarded for their stellar season by being named a host for the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament. The Jumbos will be participating in their 12th NCAA tournament, their ninth consecutive, having won the big dance four times since 2014. The Jumbos will take on Bridgewater State, while the University of Rochester and Johnson & Wales battle it out in the other first-round clash at Bello Field.
While the NESCAC’s top prize eluded the 2023 Jumbos, a national title is still within reach. As the NCAA tournament approaches, the Jumbos are confident they can be the last squad standing.
“We feel like the sky’s the limit for this team,” Yanez said. “But I think the most important thing is staying really grounded, staying hungry and just taking it one game at a time because anything can happen.”