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Tufts lacrosse players celebrate at the end of their NCAA championship game win over RIT.

Tufts Outlasts RIT in D-III Shootout, Wins Fourth NCAA Title

May 26, 2024
Justin Feil
Rich Barnes

PHILADELPHIA – Tufts might be a year ahead of schedule, but the Jumbos weren’t going to wait.

They had enough heartbreak last year.

A young Tufts team that returned after losing in last year’s national title game outscored RIT, 18-14, to win the Division III national championship Sunday afternoon at Lincoln Financial Field.

“We're a pretty young team,” said Tufts coach Casey D’Annolfo. “I think we're ahead of schedule on that.”

A matchup of the second- and third-leading scoring offenses in the country lived up to its billing with Tufts (18-3) racing out to an early lead and never trailing on the way to its first national title win since 2015. The Jumbos avenged a 16-11 regular-season loss to RIT from March 16. RIT (21-3) failed to win a third championship in four years after claiming the 2021 and 2022 crowns. The teams were tied, 13-13, going into the fourth quarter.

“We’ve been to three title games in four years, which is really impressive, so I can't say enough about our senior group,” said RIT coach Jake Coon. “I love those guys. We just came up a little short today. Tufts made some plays. They had a great start, we fell behind and had a little bit of a tough finish for us as well. A couple bounces went their way.”

After falling in last year’s title game, Tufts’ young players stepped into starring roles this year. Winning this year bodes well for next season. None of the Jumbos’ eight USILA All-Americans are seniors, but Tufts wasn’t banking on a return.

“We talked about it last night at the team meeting,” D’Annolfo said. “I think we're really good. I know we're young, but we can't take this for granted, can't take this opportunity for granted. You can say, hey, we're going to be great, we're going to be great every year, we’re going to be here every year and then all of a sudden you get complacent.”

Charlie Tagliaferri claimed Most Outstanding Player after finishing with a hat trick and three assists to pace the Tufts offense. Garrett Kelly scored four times and had a pair of assists, Jack Regnery also had a hat trick and an assist, and Chase Beyer and Max Ettinghausen each scored twice.

The teams had split their last two meetings. In their 16-11 regular-season win March 23, RIT jumped out to a 6-3 first-quarter lead and the Jumbos never got closer than three goals the rest of the way.

Tufts went through RIT, 15-11, in last year’s NCAA semifinal before falling to Salisbury in the final.

Tufts won five straight games to capture the national title Sunday after being upset by Hamilton in the NESCAC quarterfinals at home April 27. They also lost at home to Wesleyan on April 6. Those losses put them on the road for all five NCAA tournament games.

“A couple of the losses were the reset we needed,” said Tagliaferri. “Nothing’s going to be given to you and everything you have to earn it. That kind of punch in the face from Hamilton woke us up a little bit and made us reset that we have two weeks and emphasized getting better ourselves.”

Tufts jumped out to an 8-3 lead in the first quarter Sunday, a big difference from their first meeting of the season with RIT when they played from behind most of the game and from last year’s national title game when they fell behind Salisbury, 6-0. All three of Tagliaferri’s goals came in the first quarter.

“We just forgot about last year, like we're going to start this different,” Tagliaferri said. “We knew we were capable of doing so. So just getting that early goal, I think really everyone was like let's do this, let's rock, we're ready to go.”

Luke Pilcher finished with three goals for RIT, John Mozrall had a goal and four assists, and Jake Erickson and Kaden Brunson scored two goals apiece. RIT’s top defender, Mike Grace, who will transfer to Syracuse for a graduate year next fall, played despite a knee injury he has been dealing with for weeks. Leading goal scorer Clifford Gaston was limited to one goal and one assist after scoring five goals in their March meeting.

“The difference today was we were a little bit smarter in sliding off him,” said Tufts goalie Conner Garzone. “We stayed a little sticky on him and didn't give him those same low angle looks that he's so good at. But I think really it was just a collective effort, Coach (Stephen) Toomey putting us in the right spot, Joey Waldbaum, George Panagopoulos and Michael Ayres doing their job and giving me shots that I could save.”

Garzone made 11 saves for Tufts, four in the fourth quarter to backstop a 5-1 scoring advantage.

RIT’s Alex Zborowski stopped 12 shots, improving with each quarter. The teams combined to take 95 shots, paced by Tufts’ 55. Tufts also held a commanding 49-34 edge in ground balls and finished with a 22-14 faceoff advantage.

“The reason we lost that (March 16) game and the reason we won today was the little things,” Garzone said. “The ground balls in front of the cage, plays in the middle of the field, clearing the ball riding the ball, that was really the difference maker. And when we looked at the film, it was like these are all things we can fix.”

Tufts made the bigger plays in the penultimate quarter Sunday. Regnery finished his 16th hat trick of the season to give Tufts a one-goal lead four minutes into the final quarter. Zborowski came up with a save to keep RIT only down a goal, but Garzone answered with a save of his own.

Sam Frisoli’s first goal of the game gave Tufts a 15-13 lead. After Tufts won possession by backing up a missed RIT shot, Kelly’s fourth goal put the Jumbos up 16-13. Garzone’s 10th save kept RIT scoreless nine minutes into the fourth quarter.

Pilcher’s third goal cut RIT’s deficit to 16-14, but then came a game-clinching series to propel Tufts to the finish line.

Down to the final ticks on the shot clock, Brooks Hauser forced a back-handed shot that bounced harmlessly across the goal from the right side, but a cutting Beyer snared it and shoveled it by Zborowski as the shot clock expired for a 17-14 lead with 2:31 left to end a rare Tufts possession that went deep in the shot clock.

“I just had all the all the trust and all the faith in the world in the guys to get the job done those last couple minutes,” D’Annolfo said.

Ten seconds later, the Jumbos’ Victor Salcedo then won the ensuing faceoff and fired in his fourth goal of the year for Tufts’ first four-goal lead since the first quarter as RIT seemed to wither in the hot conditions and under constant attack from the high-paced Jumbos.

“We're trying to play depth and let our guys play, but we did play quite a bit of defense because they're winning faceoffs,” Coon said. “It was definitely a factor. And we looked a little tired at times late in the game.”

The tiring pace was established early, a calling card for the Tufts offense this year. Tufts scored seconds into their first possession to set a torrid pace as Tagliaferri ripped a shot low from the right wing. Brunson got RIT on the board less than a minute later, but Tagliaferri scored his second goal of the game. Tagliaferri reached a hat trick in just 5:34 of game time and Ettinghausen and Cam Delcristo scored for a 5-2 Tufts lead. Mozrall’s flying catch and score from Gaston momentarily stopped the Tufts momentum and cut the deficit to 5-3 before Ettinghausen pumped in his second goal, Regnery scored a man-up goal and Kelly gave Tufts its fifth goal in less than three minutes for an 8-3 Jumbos’ lead.

“Having that little cushion early on was good for our guys to settle us down a little bit and just allowed us to play with a lot fewer nerves out there,” D’Annolfo said.

RIT’s Connor Finneran snapped the run with a goal in transition, and Erickson scored off a perfect feed by Mozrall to make it 8-5 before the crowd could catch its breath over a scoreless final 2:12 of the first quarter.

After the highest scoring quarter in D3 championship history, the scoring pace throttled down in the second quarter. RIT’s Brunson scored the first goal of the second quarter, but Kelly re-established a three-goal lead for Tufts. Dylan Bruno, then Ian Dinga on Mozrall’s second helper scored back-to- back goals to trim the Tigers’ deficit to 9-8.

Tufts was trying to stay away from giving RIT, the top man-up offense in the country, any advantage, and true to form the Tigers made them pay on their first man-up opportunity to tie the game, 9-9, on Ethan Harkins’ goal with 8:19 left in the second quarter. It was the only extra-man goal that RIT got all day.

Tufts went back up top on Kelly’s third goal, the sophomore’s fourth hat trick in the last eight games.

Garzone’s fifth save of the first half with 41 seconds left in the second quarter preserved the Jumbos’ 10-9 lead.

Tufts won nine of the first 10 faceoffs and 16 of the first 20 ground balls. They held a 14-7 faceoff edge and 29-15 advantage in ground balls at halftime. The teams combined to fire 45 shots.

Beyer’s goal from straight up top gave Tufts an 11-9 lead to start the third quarter. RIT notched a transition goal from Pilcher and Erickson’s fake and score tied the game, 11-11.

Kevin Christmas circled the cage and fired in a goal from in tight for a 12-11 Jumbos lead. A low strike from Regnery from the left wing upped the Tufts lead to 13-11. A save by Garzone was negated by failed clear that RIT almost immediately turned into Gaston’s only goal.

Pilcher fought through a pair of defenders and leapt from the right side of the goal to stuff it in and tie the game, 13-13, with four minutes to go in the third quarter. RIT killed off a 1-minute penalty and Zborowski made a point-blank save to keep RIT tied, but the fourth quarter belonged to a young Tufts team that figures to return a favorite to repeat.

“The standard is set now and we're going to going to push these guys pretty hard next year,” D’Annolfo said.