Tufts men's soccer head coach Kyle Dezotell at an October 2020 practice. (Alonso Nichols/Tufts University)
As the one-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic passes, so does the first anniversary of Tufts officially hiring Kyle Dezotell as its men’s soccer head coach to replace Josh Shapiro.
The last 12 months didn’t exactly go how Dezotell envisioned, of course, as his first game still awaits. Yet he holds a dream job for any Division III coach, taking over a team that won four of the last six national titles before Shapiro departed for a rebuild project at Harvard.
Before entering the NESCAC, Dezotell recalled one of his final Liberty League chapters. The Vermont native and Middlebury graduate previously spent the last three years at Ithaca, then found out that he got the much-coveted opening.
All the while, Dezotell live-streamed a men’s lacrosse game between Ithaca and Tufts on March 10, 2020. It finished as a 26-11 blowout in Tufts’ favor, followed by the sporting world coming to a screeching halt.
“At that point, it was all so new and so fresh,” Dezotell told New England Soccer Journal. “We all thought people were overreacting in a way and nobody truly knew the extent of this, then obviously within two weeks, the whole world had shut down. It was a crazy time.”
Before his family moved, Dezotell’s interim plans to rent an apartment in the Greater Boston area and be at Tufts’ campus ultimately weren’t necessary. Non-essential workers shifted to remote work environments, and a silver lining was it gave them more time to sell their house and transition.
Speaking matter-of-factly, Dezotell said he’s spent the last year more as a mentor/counselor than a coach. The NESCAC announced on July 10, 2020 that fall sports were canceled, starting a wave of similar decisions around the region from other D-III conferences.
“We all realized it before the announcement, to be honest, and then priorities change where, more than anything, you’re being a support system for the guys,” Dezotell said. “They have a million questions about should we come back, should we take a semester off, what does eligibility mean – all these things you’re trying to help them navigate.
“And when I initially took the job, our whole rising senior class was abroad. They’re guys I didn’t really know yet and I’m trying to help them get back home from Spain or England or France or wherever they were. It’s kind of crazy to look back upon.”
Tufts conducted limited practices last fall, and the same is unfolding this spring after the NESCAC green-lighted teams formally training during their non-traditional season. But even those carry limitations, as grateful as Dezotell and his players may be to gather on Bello Field.
Aside from developing relationships with Tufts players, Dezotell has devoted considerable time to recruiting the Class of 2021. Assistant coach Mark Waterman has played a notable role there, resulting in a six-player group where they were “a little bit pickier” than normal years.
In self-imposed fashion, the NESCAC faces its own recruiting dead period. The Division I hold was last extended through May 31, while the New England-centric conference’s decision is indefinite. So recruiting is being done remotely, leaning heavily on film, relationships with trusted coaches and virtual meet-ups.
“We purposefully went a little bit smaller, and I probably said no to a player or two or three that, fingers crossed, doesn’t end up scoring goals against us for other NESCAC teams in the next few years or at Johns Hopkins or wherever they end up,” Dezotell said. “But with our guys, we felt like 100 percent they were good enough and would fit in, have the character traits we’re looking for. The reality, too, is everyone is missing out on some really talented players because of the difficulties we’re all facing in recruiting.”
Layered in, Tufts will return most of its current senior class next fall. That includes standouts like center back Biagio Paoletta (Fairfield, Conn.), defensive midfielder Calvin Aroh (Glastonbury, Conn.) and box-to-box midfielder Travis Van Brewer (Wilbraham, Mass.), leaving the back-to-back national champions five classes deep.
But there are complications, as Dezotell noted their roster currently contains 36 players. Half-joking, he said they don’t have 36 jerseys and can’t realistically buy three new sets of uniforms. They’re still a D-III program and have limited resources, after all.
As Dezotell has balanced long-term planning with applying his style, he’s been impressed by Tufts’ player-led culture. He dubbed it a hallmark of Shapiro’s 10-year tenure, where the players largely dictate the day-to-day environment. He also noted that they’re remarkably humble, despite being the pace-setters in D-III.
“I was pretty shocked by this, where one of the first training sessions, we had a couple of guys who have started and won two national championships,” Dezotell said. “They’re out there making fun of their first touch and passing ability. The humility just really struck me and it’s what’s probably prevented these guys from becoming complacent.
“These guys, they love to win and it’s part of why they chose Tufts, but they know the reality is if we’re playing Stanford, odds are we’re not winning that game. Sometimes, D-III players aren’t quite that humble and want to believe they’re more.”
Extremes aside, Dezotell and his players are eager to compete again. That could be nearing, too, after NESCAC presidents announced on Tuesday that spring sports can return to limited conference competition from mid-April to mid-May. After the Ivy League announced Feb. 18 that its schools wouldn’t participate in spring sports, worries swelled that NESCAC programs would miss a second straight season.
Considering the NESCAC’s “incredible news” and increased vaccine availability nationwide, Dezotell said he feels “very positive” about Tufts competing during the Fall 2021 semester.
“The spring sports decision just makes the possibility even more real,” Dezotell said. “Things can change, of course, but I really think NESCAC student-athletes for the first time in a while, for fall sports, feel like they truly have to get ready. They’re recognizing that in six months they’re going again.”
Should Tufts indeed return in early September, it’d end an 18-month waiting period for Dezotell’s first game on the sidelines. Tufts players, meanwhile, would have gone nearly 21 months since a 2-0 win over NESCAC rival Amherst in the 2019 national final.
“It’s been such a wild introduction in so many ways,” Dezotell said. “We’re just excited to really get this thing going here.”
Jonathan Sigal is the Director of Content for New England Soccer Journal, overseeing all print and digital efforts. You can email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @JonathanSigal.
To learn more about Kyle's coaching and soccer career, you can read the Tuft's announcement here.