Tufts shakes off 4-0 hole to win second title in a row
PHILADELPHIA -- John Uppgren looked quickly over his right shoulder, then peered back to his left before firing a no-look shot over his opposite shoulder that found nothing but net with more than 20 minutes remaining.
The junior provided the most SportsCenter-esque highlight on a Sunday afternoon where they eventually came fast and furious in the final 50-plus minutes, which was all the more remarkable considering how truly lackluster Tufts looked in the first nine minutes of its NCAA Division III Men’s Lacrosse Championship title defense.
Before Uppgren scored the first of his four goals 9:17 into the Jumbos’ battle against a Lynchburg team that entered on a 19-game victory run, they had yet to take a shot while the opposition fired off 14 en route to scoring the first four goals of the match.
Of course, that last part will become a future footnote when discussing Tufts’ second national championship in as many seasons and third overall, no one focusing on an inauspicious beginning that gave way to a well-deserve celebration following a 19-11 victory before 19,559 at Lincoln Financial Field.
“At 4-0, we didn’t need a timeout. We were nervous but we didn’t need a timeout,” Tufts coach Mike Daly said. “These guys, as they did all year all long, they just take strain and keep grinding.”
Prolonged displays of excellence are certainly not uncommon in championship games, but they rarely occur on this stage after such a sluggish start. Fortunately, this narrative was nothing new to Tufts (21-2), which labored early in the first quarter last Sunday before running past the Rochester Institute for a 19-12 victory in the semifinals.
Daly quickly considered calling a timeout, gauging his 11 guys on the field after Lynchburg's (21-3) fourth goal before letting them fight through it themselves. Smart move. Once junior midfielder and Most Outstanding Player Justin Helfrich won the ensuing faceoff, Tufts did an abrupt about-face.
“Tufts is known for their momentum,” Lynchburg senior attacker Todd Galvin said. That was the understatement of the afternoon: After squandering it, the Jumbos seized all of the momentum and could do wrong.
“For me, it was winning the next faceoff,” Helfrich said after winning 23 of 31. “[Then] give these guys the ball and I know they'll do great things with it.”
Added Uppgren, who broke his school single-season points record with 129 after tallying eight Sunday: “That's the whole team mentality. Win the next 50-50 groundball, make the next pass, score the next goal.”
Starting with Uppgren's first tally, Tufts found the back of the net five times within a stretch of 4:25 to take a 5-4 lead after the first 15 minutes. Meanwhile, Helfrich continually controlled the faceoffs, enabling the Jumbos to virtually camp out in Lynchburg's half of the turf.
Lynchburg forged a 5-5 tie when junior attacker Austin Stewart (two goals) scored his NCAA Division III single-season record 108th goal, but Tufts tallied three more goals over the ensuing 39 seconds before claiming a 10-6 halftime cushion. Another trio of tallies, two off the stick of senior attacker Cole Bailey (three goals, four assists), within a 45-second timeframe to start the third made the score 13-6 before Uppgren’s no-look goal all but ensured a Jumbos’ repeat.
“So there's a flag on the ground, and I believe I just tried to drive up to the island and I got my momentum stuck a little bit, and, yeah, just shot it over my shoulder,” Uppgren said with a laugh. “I just went for it. Kind of a free shot.”
Unlike the game’s beginning, Tufts will certainly remember Uppgren’s SportsCenter moment and the best moment of all: Celebrating back-to-back national championships, becoming the first eight team in Division III history to repeat.
“It's special, it's unreal,” Bailey said. “I can't even describe the feeling right now, but it speaks volumes about this program, Coach Daly and the rest of the coaching staff, the alumni and the support we have. Without them none of this is possible.
“This is just a great group of guys. I've grown so much being around them for four years -- speaks volumes about this program.”