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Conn College men beat Tufts 5-4 to earn first trip to NCAA D-III Final Four

A resilient Connecticut College men's soccer team survived an exhilarating and exhausting 90-minute thrill ride to make program history on Sunday.

With a crazy 5-4 victory over New England Small College Athletic Conference rival Tufts in the NCAA Division III tournament quarterfinals in Medford, Mass., the Camels are headed to the Final Four for the first time.

"Surreal," coach Reuben Burk said by phone early Sunday evening. "It still hasn't sunk in. Just a crazy game. Hard to put into words. Maybe relief more than excitement. I think it will set in maybe later tonight or tomorrow that we're going to the Final Four.

"My initial reaction is I can't believe what I just witnessed. Between playing college soccer and coaching in college soccer, definitely the craziest game I've been a part of."

The sixth-ranked Camels (17-4-1) will play Washington & Lee (18-1-2), a 3-1 win over No. 8 Messiah on Sunday, in the national semifinals at 5 p.m. Friday, Dec. 3, in Greensboro, N.C. Amherst and University of Chicago will meet in the second game at 7:45 p.m.

Men's soccer is just the second team at Conn College to advance to the Final Four, joining the 1999 men's basketball program.

The victory was even sweeter because it came against host Tufts, the two-time defending national champion and constant thorn in Conn's side. The Camels, who won the NESCAC regular-season title, lost the tournament final to the Jumbos on Nov. 7. They also were eliminated by Tufts in their first NCAA quarterfinal trip in 2019.

Conn gained some confidence by handing Tufts its only regular-season loss on Oct. 23.

"I'll be honest, yes," Burk said when asked if it is sweeter going to the Final Four by beating Tufts. "Everyone on the team would say, yes. It was almost meant to be, right? The guys were joking (Saturday) that they didn't want to play in the Elite Eight unless it was Tufts.

"Losing in the 2019 in the Elite Eight and then losing in the NESCAC championship, if there was a game to get them, it was definitely this game. Definitely a sweet one to get."

On Sunday, the Camels rallied from one-goal deficits on two occasions and seized a 5-2 lead in the second half before holding on.

Senior MT Tshuma scored two goals, sophomore Jack Creus had a goal and a career-best three assists and junior Augie Djerdjaj added a goal and an assist. Junior goalie Sam Maidenberg made six saves and cut off several other dangerous chances.

"Maybe that's the proudest thing for me as a coach is the resiliency, because it would be really easy to throw in the towel at their place with their crowd," Burk said. "They're the defending national champions. You just take it one play at a time."

It was a wild game from the start as the two teams traded goals in the first half, with Conn College answering twice after Tufts scored. Tshuma's header off an assist from sophomore Ryan Jaran tied it at 1 and sophomore Matt Scoffone's strike just before half at the 44:41 mark tied it at 2-all.

"The pivotal moment in the game was the goal right before the second half," Burk said. "That influences the game heavily going into halftime 2-2. Get the momentum back and we're able to regroup at halftime. The guys deserve a ton of credit, just believing in themselves and sticking to the game plan and settling the game back down after we concede a goal."

Scoffone's tally, which was assisted by Djerdjaj and Creus, was the first of four straight goals for the Camels, who displayed cool composure and a lethal finishing touch.

Creus hit a laser high into the goal to hand Conn College the lead for good, 3-2, about two minutes into the second half. He then set up goals byDjerdjaj and Tshuma for a 5-2 lead.

A seemingly secure lead turned into a slim one when Max Jacobs and Sean Traynor scored less than two minutes apart for Tufts to cut the gap to 5-4 at the 71:01 mark.

Conn College did just enough to hold off Tufts in the frantic final minutes. The Camels tied a season high for goals in a game and also allowed a seasonhigh.

"In 2019 when we played Tufts, we struggled to get shots off, let alone goals," Burk said. "Someone made the comment as the game was going on, both teams are taking the gloves off and just going at each other."

The Camels stormed the field once the final whistle blew.

Now they'll have some rest before preparing for the Final Four.

"Although it's great that we made history, we've come too far not to give it our very best to win it all," Burk said. "Now that we can see it, let's be the national champs."

g.keefe@theday.com

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