Soccer, more often than not, is a game of mistakes. The winner of a game is usually the team who makes the least mistakes cumulatively and takes advantage of the other team’s misplays. Rarely, in any sport, do we witness a game that is decided sheerly on talent and quality. Sunday night saw two excellent teams square off in one of the most exciting games in Division III soccer all season.
Montclair State came into the game at 19-3-0, ranked third in the nation in the final NCAA poll of the year. The team was the NJAC regular season champion. Their opponent, Tufts University, came in at 11-4-3 and started ranked no. 1 in the country after they captured the 2014 NCAA national championship, going on an improbable run which knocked off powerhouses Messiah College and Wheaton College.
The game began with each team displaying their preferred styles of play. Tufts pushed up a high line and flooded the midfield, looking to play quick 1-2 passes on the ground while controlling possession. Junior midfielder Zach Halliday marshalled the midfield from a deeper position and broke up the play, allowing Rui Pinheiro and Jason Kayne the freedom to attack.
Montclair State was happy to sit deep and absorb the pressure while looking to spring counter attacks through speedy forward Mike Olla and winger Kyle Goodwin. Tufts had the better chances in the first half, dominating possession and whipping in dangerous crosses. Tufts took advantage of its dominance in the 26th minute when, after a foul 10 yards into the Red Hawks’ half of the field, Pinheiro delivered a pinpoint service into the box. Sophomore centerback Connor Coleman found himself free in the box and, with his back to the goal, flicked a looping header over the outstretched arms of Red Hawk keeper Mike Saalfrank. The Jumbos continued their attack and almost capitalized, but Saalfrank made a diving save to deny leftback Monil Patel.
The Red Hawks were able to tie the game at 1-1 in the 43rd minute after freshman winger Matt Hendrickson drew a dubious penalty on a breakaway. Hendrickson was up against three defenders and took on centerback Daniel Sullivan. When Hendrickson’s momentum took him into Sullivan, the referee pointed to the penalty spot. Hendrickson got up and confidently fired the ball low into the left side netting, beating well-positioned keeper Scott Greenwood.
The beginning of the second half belonged to Montclair State, whose size and speed seemed to overwhelm Tufts as Hendrickson and midfielder Damian Bziukiewicz rampaged up and down the wings. Montclair State took the lead in the 54th minute on an excellent goal from Olla. Hendrickson turned his defender down the goal line and squared the ball to Olla on the corner of the six-yard box. Olla sealed his defender, turned to his right and fired a shot into the side netting past an onrushing Greenwood.
Tufts went on the offensive after that, but had a hard time penetrating the Red Hawks’ defense. Montclair State’s stalwart defender John Starner did an outstanding job marking Tufts’ lead goal scorer Nathan Majumder and limiting his chances. Tufts managed to pin Montclair State back in their own half and even had a goal ruled offside in the 75th minute. Tufts’ pressure paid off in the 83rd minute, when Sullivan slammed in a header off the post in a corner served in by Patel, tying the game at 2-2.
Instead of backing off the game and holding the tie to get to overtime, Tufts continued to press and took the lead three minutes later on a masterstroke from senior midfielder Connor Brown. Brown gathered a pass 22 yards from the goal on the left side and unleashed a brilliant curling effort that nestled into the top corner of the net. “I’m not sure what happened,” Brown said. “I kind of just blacked out. It was crazy.”
Tufts held out for the win and will take on Kenyon College in Ohio this Saturday in the Sweet 16. “[Montclair State] is a great team,” said John Shapiro, Tuft’s head coach. “We knew they were going to come in and play their style, fast and direct. We just wanted to come in and play our way too. This win gives us a lot of confidence going forward.”