Maxime Hoppenot isn’t a star for the Tufts men’s soccer team. He will be the first to tell you that.
But no one can deny his value to the Jumbos, who capped off an NCAA Division III national championship season on Saturday with a 4-2 win over Wheaton (Ill.) at Swope Park in Kansas City.
The numbers might not show up on the stat sheet —- Hoppenot scored only three goals and three assists this season — but he played a key part in Tufts’ ability to win its first national title in program history.
“I’m not a prolific scorer or anything like that, but I do have my hand in a lot of goals,” Hoppenot said. “I try to play well defensively and create opportunities for others off that.”
Tufts head coach Josh Shapiro said he wanted his team to open up things more offensively this season, and that led to 49 goals for the Jumbos, who finished 16-2-4, setting a record for most wins in program history.
Shapiro will tell you Hoppenot had a lot to do with the team’s success on the offensive end of the field.
“Maxime is the unsung hero on the team,” Shapiro said. “He does a lot of the dirty work, and because of the way he plays, he allows other guys to score goals.”
Hoppenot was one of seven seniors on the roster for Tufts, which didn’t even make the NCAA tournament a year ago, winning only eight games.
But Hoppenot said he and his teammates were confident a tournament run was possible if everything fell into place.
“I thought the pieces were there last year too, and we had cautious optimism for this season,” Hoppenot said. “We felt we were talented enough to do it. It was a matter of getting it done on the field.”
Being a senior, there was added determination to make sure the season ended with a spot in the NCAA tourney.
“Myself and the other seniors were extremely determined,” Hoppenot said. “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy to get there. We were going to have to earn it. But once we got in, we were ready to make a run.”
Shapiro said the team took a step back last season after appearing in the tourney in 2012 but was confident this group could be an NCAA tournament team.
The Jumbos were tested often during the regular season, particularly in the New England Small College Athletic Conference, and Shapiro believes that helped prepare his team for the NCAA tournament where his team played every game away from home.
“Our guys were battle tested, and those games helped us to be ready to face the best competition,” Shapiro said. “Our guys understood what it would take to win big games.”
But it didn’t look like Tufts would get to use that experience in the NCAA tournament. It’s postseason hopes were pushed to the brink of extinction after a 2-1 upset loss to Connecticut College in the quarterfinal round of the conference tournament.
Instead of proving to be a disastrous moment, it served as a turning point.
“We came together as a team and we told the guys we had to come out and match intensity and energy of the opponent at the start of every game. We responded to it.”
Indeed the Jumbos did, outscoring its six NCAA tournament opponents 14-3. The run featured four consecutive shutouts, including a 2-0 Elite Eight win over two-time defending champion Messiah and a 3-0 win over Ohio Wesleyan in a national semifinal on Friday.
The solid defensive effort in the tournament wasn’t a surprise. The Jumbos were tough defensively all season, allowing a total of 13 goals. Scott Greenwood started 20 games and made 47 saves. He owned a goals against average of 0.58.
“We defended well as a team and kept the shot numbers of our opponents down,” Hoppenot said. “And if we had a breakdown, our back four was very good, and if teams got past that, we had one of the best goalies in the country back there to make plays. Our defense played a huge part in our success as a team.”
Offensively, the Jumbos were paced by Gus Santos, who scored 10 goals and dished out two assists. Connor Brown and Jason Kayne tallied six goals apiece while Nathan Majumder racked up five goals. Sam Williams finished the year with four goals.
But the success of the Jumbos in the NCAA tournament went beyond goals and defense. It was about embracing the underdog role and running with it.
“I think it helped us to be the underdog,” Hoppenot said. “We came out flying and fired up. We knew that if we worked hard, we would play good soccer. It worked out for us.”
Winning a national title isn’t easy and nothing is guaranteed for the Jumbos next season. Still, expectations will be high for a program whose previous best finish was a national quarterfinal trip in 1994.
“I hope the expectations are high and that the returning players want to get back to this point, or at least close to it” Shapiro said. “We are losing some quality players, but we have a lot of talent coming back and we’re looking forward to working hard and seeing what we can accomplish next season.”