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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, May 25, 2024

Women’s soccer advances to the NCAA Final Four, continues the Cinderella story

The Jumbos survive after taking a 3–2 revenge victory against No. 22 Bowdoin and stunning previously undefeated No. 6 Rochester 1–0.

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Elsi Aires pictured against Rochester on Nov. 19, 2023.

Three weeks ago, when the Tufts women’s soccer team was bounced out of the NESCAC playoffs in the quarterfinals, most people would have told you it was a long-shot for the squad to make the NCAA tournament. Yet, after analyzing the resumés of potential Pool C teams, the selection committee decided to award the Jumbos an at-large bid. Even then, people would have told you that the Jumbos would not be a tournament team for any length of time.

Those people were wrong.

The field has diminished from 64 teams down to four. After topping Franklin and Marshall and The College of New Jersey in the first weekend, and Bowdoin and Rochester this past weekend, the Jumbos have earned the right to call themselves one of the remaining four for the third time in program history. All the more impressive, these four victories were all claimed on the road when the squad traveled to TCNJ in Ewing, N.J. for the first pair of matches and to Rochester, N.Y. this past weekend. In a written correspondence to the Daily, sophomore forward Elsi Aires described how embracing an underdog mindset has allowed the Jumbos to come away with these upsets.

“I would say our team’s love for each other drives our mentality in soccer. We would always say we are playing for our seniors and give them another game. Now we constantly say we play for each other, for the girl on the right and left of you,” Aires wrote. “All we know is we’ve got absolutely nothing to lose and every other team thinks they will get an easy win from us, so we use that to drive us. We are the underdogs and we love it!”

For Saturday’s Sweet 16 matchup against the national No. 22 Bowdoin Polar Bears, the Jumbos had one thing on their minds: revenge. Less than a month before, in the last game of the regular season, Bowdoin defeated Tufts 3–2. It would not take long into Saturday’s game for the squad to remember that result and take advantage of that feeling.

In the 10th minute, Emily Nicholas, first-year center defensive midfielder, played a brilliantly paced, lofted ball over the top to Aires, who was taken down in the box by Bowdoin’s sophomore goalkeeper Charlotte Iannone. After the referee signaled, senior center midfielder Thalia Greenberg converted the penalty kick by placing it in the bottom corner to take the 1–0 lead.

Less than four minutes later, the Jumbos doubled their lead when Aires collected a rebound and put it in the back of the net after a couple of shots from point-blank range were blocked by the Polar Bears. The Jumbos continued their dominance and control of play throughout the half and headed into the second frame up 2–0.

In the second half, however, the Polar Bears raised their level of play and put major pressure on the Jumbos. As a result, in the 56th minute, the Polar Bears earned a penalty kick, scored by senior midfielder Greta Farkas.

Despite the pressure, the Jumbos were able to find success of their own. In the 75th minute, when sophomore center midfielder Caroline Kelly played an excellently threaded through-ball that split the defenders, Aires was on the net and scored with finesse to make it 3–1.

The Polar Bears responded less than two minutes later with a tap-in goal from sophomore midfielder Stephanie Christianson. However, they did not have enough in the tank to prevent the Jumbos from claiming the 3–2 victory and moving on to the Elite Eight.

Early on in Sunday’s game, the team witnessed the talent of the national No. 6 Yellow Jackets firsthand as the undefeated side from Rochester had the more dangerous chances. While Rochester was never the more controlling team based on possession, their counterattacking play, which utilized rapid acceleration from their pacy attacking unit, allowed them to threaten Tufts’ defense. Perhaps the best opportunity of the game came early, off of a Rochester free-kick, when first-year forward Sydney Holmes had a speedy back post run but headed the ball over the open net.

As time passed in the match, the Jumbos gradually became comfortable and ultimately the more dominant team and, in the second half, the Yellow Jackets still had some chances but it seemed like the Jumbos’ defense had learned how to stifle the counterattacks.

Meanwhile, Tufts’ offensive presence was apparent in the first half but, in the second, it was lethal. The speed from Aires was as clear as ever, and the chances were there too; she recorded a baffling seven shots on the day. In addition, first-year forward Waverly Sumner demonstrated her mobility when Rochester struggled to defend her from cutting in from the left wing on multiple occasions.

Finally, in the 82nd minute, the duo produced a magical moment for the squad. Sumner drove down the left flank, cut in yet again and found Aires at the top of the box, who took a touch and hit a pinpoint left-foot strike into the top right corner to give the Jumbos the lead. After that, the Jumbos did just enough to hold onto the 1–0 victory.

Aires described the nature of the spectacular play.

“During today’s game, I just knew I had to keep shooting and putting it all out there for whatever came my way. Waverly Sumner did a fantastic job on the wing and set my goal up beautifully,” Aires wrote.

The Jumbos’ Final Four matchup will be against California Lutheran on Nov. 30 in Salem, Va., while Washington University of St. Louis and Messiah will play in the other matchup. The two winners will meet on the same field in the NCAA Championship at noon on Dec. 2.

Aires expressed the team’s mentality heading into the final weekend.

“Anything is possible. With such a strong team, I know we can do anything. I have so much trust in our team and know everyone will put in their all. I am so proud of how far we’ve come and I know we can take it all the way,” Aires wrote.