Men’s soccer fell short in what was, without a doubt, its toughest test of the regular season, losing 2-1 away to No. 3 Tufts on Saturday, Oct. 16 in the third-to-last minute of double overtime.
The Mammoths and Jumbos entered the game on Bello Field in Medford, Mass. as the 12th- and third-ranked teams in the nation, respectively, boasting a combined record of 18-1-3. Beyond being a rematch of the most recent Division III national final — which Tufts won 2-1 — the game went a long way in determining the all-important top seed in (and host of) the NESCAC playoffs. Both teams entered the game knowing that the winner would sit atop the conference table with just two conference matchups remaining.
It was a story of two entirely different halves. The first period saw Amherst on the front foot. Accustomed to dictating games, the undefeated Jumbos appeared shaken, mustering just one shot in the first 45 minutes. It was clear that the two teams had history, with both benches offering nearly constant — and quite vociferous — commentary on the officiating from the sidelines.
The Mammoth backline absorbed a bit of early Tufts pressure, dominating aerial duels, before the midfield began to string passes together and move up into the Jumbos’ half.
Set pieces have been a focal point of the Amherst attack all season — and they went back to the well for their opener. Amherst won a series of corners in quick succession around the 25-minute mark, culminating in an Ignacio Cubbedu ’23 in-swinger from the left side, which bounced off a Jumbos defender before sitting up nicely for Amherst defenseman Kyle Kelley ’22. He didn’t hesitate, sending a right-footed half volley into the left side netting. It was his first of the season, and it could not have come at a more necessary moment.
The Mammoths kept up the intensity for the rest of the second half, but failed to convert their high possession share into what would have been a nerve-calming second goal.
Maybe Tufts Head Coach Kyle Dezotell fired up his team in the half-time huddle, maybe the crowd at Bello Field got behind them, maybe the wind shifted. Whatever the reason, Tufts looked a different team in the second half.
They controlled possession, ripping two shots in the first two minutes of the half, with the second glancing off the woodwork. The Jumbos found the equalizer, which long seemed to be coming, in the 59th minute. Following an Amherst foray into their box, Tufts sprang forward on the counter attack. Midfielder Woovin Shin played a ball forward into the path of forward Mati Cano, who outran two Amherst defenders before calmly slotting the ball into the bottom-right corner.
The tie held — just barely — through the rest of the second half, during which the Jumbos outshot the Mammoths 6-4. Tufts would have captured the win in 90th minute if it weren’t for Amherst goalkeeper Kofi Hope-Gund ’22, who narrowly saved a wide-open shot from near the penalty spot in the dying seconds.
The game got increasingly chippy in the first of two 10-minute overtime periods, in which the first team to score wins. Neither team found a single shot on goal in the first overtime period.
The same story played out for much of the second period, and with three minutes to play, the two teams seemed headed for a tie. But then, after a series of contentious no-calls on both sides of the field, the Jumbos were awarded a free kick on the right side of the Amherst box. Travis Van Brewer delivered a dangerous ball into the box. 6-foot-3-inch Calvin Aroh muscled past his defender and nodded the ball into the bottom-right corner. Hope-Gund never had a chance. Aroh was swarmed by teammates. Jumbos fans erupted in the stands. The Tufts play-by-play announcer seemed in danger of tearing his vocal chords.
With the win, the NESCAC regular-season title is firmly in the Jumbo’s grasp. If they win their two remaining conference matchups, they are guaranteed the number-one seed in the playoffs and home-field advantage. To capture the title, the Mammoths would have to win their two remaining conference games and see Tufts lose both of theirs.
Despite the loss, Head Coach Justin Serpone saluted his team's performance — especially in the first half and the second overtime period, in which they produced two big chances on net but failed to convert.
In competitive games like this past Saturday’s, Serpone said, “One play, one way or the other” is what often decides the result. “They made a play in overtime and we didn’t, and to the victor go the spoils.”
The rest of the seeding — and the final Division III regional and national rankings, which could provide an alternative route to the NCAA championship if the Mammoths do not win the NESCAC tournament — is still very much up in the air, though, giving the Mammoths lots to play for. With both Tufts and Amherst positioned to make runs in the NESCAC and NCAA tournaments, another Jumbos-Mammoths matchup in 2021 is not out of the question.
Amherst closes the season with a three-game homestand, facing Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) Wednesday, Oct. 20 at 7 p.m. before a pair of NESCAC matchups with Colby and Trinity on Saturday Oct. 23 and Tuesday Oct. 26. The WPI and Trinity games are at Gooding Field, while the Colby game will be played at Hitchcock Field.