By: Josh Liddick, Lehigh Sports Communications
As the officials on the field made a decisive move to call Lafayette for stalling and stopping the clock in the closing seconds of the regulation period, senior Andy Casey had enough time to get his position set, as he floated the ball up, finding the foot of fellow senior Andy Soisson and beating the Leopards' goalkeeper for the game-tying goal.
8.4 seconds. And the Mountain Hawks were back in business.
After the departure of star Kevin Jackson at the conclusion of the 1999 campaign, the expectations that the Mountain Hawks could be competitive again the following season weren't exactly glowing.
Only three seniors, Casey, Soisson and John Wrobel were rostered on the team, but the experience from those three coupled with a ton of young talent made the squad a deadly side heading into the upcoming season, even if they didn't quite know it yet.
The year prior, Lehigh had a talented team, but one that didn't really come through at the right moments. The Mountain Hawks finished with an 8-7-2 overall record and 2-3-1 record in the Patriot League, failing to qualify for the tournament for the first time since 1996 after reaching the championship game in back-to-back seasons in 1997 and 1998.
"We entered that season (in 1999) as favorites to win the league, we came out of the gates strong and were playing and beating teams that weren't even in our league, but it never really clicked," said Casey. "That season ended and we had injuries, we had suspensions and it really did peter out.
"It was a low ebb, I remember that offseason being really long. So when we came back to school the next summer, we really weren't sure what to expect. I spent the summer in Ireland, I lived there until I was 8, so I went back for the summer and put Lehigh soccer on the backburner. When I showed up for the preseason, in terms of expectations, we didn't really have any."
But a preseason team-bonding camping trip changed everything, as eighth-year head coach Dean Koski and his coaching staff packed the vans and headed north to the Pocono Mountains for the weekend.
"Rick (Praetzel) and I had spent a lot of time trying to find ways to incorporate team-building, outdoor education and outdoor pursuits with this group," said Koski. "Rick was way ahead of the curve with a lot of that stuff in the early 2000's. We just established a concept that if we can get guys out of their comfort zones and have them spend time with one another, it would just help with the team bonding."
At first, Casey knew he couldn't stand these trips, he just wanted to return to doing the thing he loved most.
"I used to hate those team bonding trips, I just wanted to be playing soccer," Casey said. "I thought it was the biggest waste of time. But when we were actually doing it, it ended up being the most fun 12 hours. It had nothing to do with soccer, we had to repel down a cliff, we had to canoe and after the trip, we stopped and got pizza for dinner. Dean was in the other room listening to all of us tell stories and while everyone was dying laughing, Dean and the other coaches were like, 'what do we have to do to tire these guys out?' I think that was the first sign that the group of guys and the way we meshed together, we were definitely more than the sum of our parts.
"In previous years, we had these really awesome players (Jackson and Andrew Mittendorf), but both of them were no longer there. There was this void and these big names that we filled with this team unity that was built up by those two days in the woods."
Slow league start picks up fast
The season started off the same way most of the previous seasons started with key victories over strong non-league opponents. The Mountain Hawks were 4-2-1 heading into Patriot League play with wins over Marist, Saint Peter's Delaware and Saint Joseph's.
However, Lehigh only came away with a single point after the first two Patriot League matchups on the slate, with a 2-1 home loss to Holy Cross and a 1-1 draw against Colgate in Hamilton.
"In the Patriot League, we say this all the time, but it's a rock fight," said Evan Bruno '03. "Every single game in the league is tough. Of course you have rivalries like Lafayette, but every game in the Patriot League, especially in men's soccer, is difficult.
"But I still think we were just settling into who we were as a team. The unique thing about this team was that we were just a unique group of guys that came together. You had some seasoned veterans like Andy (Casey), Andy Soisson and John Wrobel, seniors who led us that had been in the program for years. Then you had this influx of raw, young talent like Doug Cusick and Wes Roach. And it took us a little bit time to kind of grow as a team. Based on our numbers and how we progressed through that season, we came together and started to be almost like an offensive juggernaut."
The offense showed itself more and more in the games that progressed with three straight victories to begin the month of October, outscoring opponents 10-2 during that stretch of games including a big 2-0 victory against Army West Point on the road.
With an 8-3-2 record after the team's first 13 games, a massive Rivalry matchup with two-time defending Patriot League champion Lafayette awaited the Mountain Hawks at the Ulrich Sports Complex.
The Rivalry, Part I
To put this particular game into context, there wasn't really much competition for the Lafayette men's soccer program in the late 1990's, having captured league titles in 1994, 1995, 1998 and 1999 already.
The Mountain Hawks knew that this particular opponent was a hurdle, falling to the Leopards twice in the 1998 season including the title game and once in 1999. Coming into this game red-hot, Lehigh knew it finally had a shot to achieve victory in this very important game.
"I remember going into this game feeling really confident and I think that's what did us in," Casey said. "We scored first, I think Colin (Marshall) scored and we went up 1-0, but at the end of the game, I just remember being really frustrated and it hadn't felt that way since we lost to Holy Cross. Even though we lost, it didn't feel like Lafayette offered too much.
"Over the years, it always felt like they knew how to disrupt us and it never felt like they played us off the park. They were just really good at being chippy and getting in your head and I think we took the bait in that game and lost, but in hindsight, I think it was a good thing because we knew that if we had to play them down the road and got involved in their little tit-for-tat stuff, that would have definitely given them a leg-up."
Lafayette came into that game with an overall record of 2-9-0 and a Patriot League record of 1-1-0, but Bruno and his teammates knew that even after the final whistle, the Mountain Hawks were still the stronger side.
"I just remember us talking after that game that we knew we were the better team," Bruno said. "But sometimes a loss during the regular season isn't the worst thing in the world. This was a team-building loss, we knew we were the better team on the day, we knew that we probably didn't perform that day and they got the best of us in certain facets of the game.
"And ultimately, when we played them again at the end of the year, we knew we could beat them and we knew that we were gonna beat them."
It's easy to say that every single game during a season was important, but the fact of the matter was, that the Mountain Hawks found themselves on the outside looking in to the Patriot League Tournament in the final pair of games of the regular season.
With only four teams qualifying for the postseason at the time, Lehigh was forced into must-win scenarios in a very important matchup at Navy and then at home against Bucknell.
For Lehigh, that weekend trip to Annapolis was the beginning of their Patriot League Tournament.
"I recall the messaging for the team going into that stretch of games was that it was our responsibility," Koski said. "We were in this place and the only way we could get to the next place was by playing with one another and commit to it. We knew we needed to take it one game at a time.
"We certainly had the confidence going into those games and the belief, but we didn't change anything, we stayed true to who we were and I think that entire run was just about team and about relationships and trust, not about talent. It was just about a group of guys committed to wanting to get to that next game and then that next game."
That matchup against the Midshipmen showed just how clutch the Mountain Hawks were in crunch time, with Bruno providing the assistance en route to a 2-1 victory in double overtime.
"The playoffs started for us on the road, in late October, in a tough environment on the road and it was freezing," said Bruno. "We found a way to win that game in Double OT and a tie did nothing for us. And Navy was a good team, in some ways they were better than Lafayette, because they had some really quality players."
Bruno had scored 18 goals throughout the 2000 season including six assists, subsequently earning First Team All-Region and All-Patriot League honors, but that one strike to down the Mids in a do-or-die scenario was a highlight for him.
"I think that goal I scored in the closing minutes at Navy was one of the best that I ever scored," Bruno said. "Colin (Marshall) whipped that cross in and found me for the diving header against Brian Steckroth, the Defensive Player of the Year in the league, who was one town over from me in New Jersey, so we definitely had a little bit of a personal rivalry going. And I was the Offensive Player of the Year that season, so scoring that diving header to win the game was amazing."
A week after that miracle victory in Annapolis, the Mountain Hawks found themselves in a similar situation, needing a win to punch their ticket into the tournament, taking on a very strong Bucknell side. It was yet another nail-biter that ended in Lehigh's favor.
After trailing 1-0 to the Bison in the 58th minute, Casey provided the assist to Doug Cusick's game-tying goal in the 81st minute to set up a crucial final nine minutes of the contest.
With just two seconds on the clock at the end of regulation, Casey set up Dan Perciballi off a corner, scoring the goal and clinching a postseason berth for the team.
"The manner that we won both the Navy game and the Bucknell game was just indicative of the team spirit that we had, we just didn't know when we were beat, we really didn't," said Casey. "There was just something different about this group going back to the preseason that started to bear fruit when we got to that tail-end of the season when our backs were against the wall.
The Rivalry, Part II
For Lehigh, everything started to feel possible heading into the Patriot League Tournament, especially after beating Bucknell yet again in the semifinal round. Bruno came through with his 18th goal of the season in the 54th minute to send the Mountain Hawks back to the Patriot League Championship Game for the third time in the previous four seasons, setting up yet another Rivalry battle with Lafayette for all the marbles.
"The message Dean sent us was that 'this is what you play for,'" said Bruno. "I remember it was a short bus ride to Lafayette but I remember he said that 'this is what the preseason was all about, this is what the first 15 games were for, give yourselves the opportunity, you have a chance to make history'
"For us, we were a pretty confident group at that point. We had scored so many goals, we had won a lot of big games and we had a lot of momentum. But this was a team that also loved each other at the same time. We wanted a little bit of revenge, but that wasn't what we were there for, for us we were focused on winning that game. We knew they were going to be chippy, physical and had home field advantage. We knew all of that. For us, it was that these were the guys we were going to go to war with and we're going to find a way to win this game."
Lehigh and Lafayette played a physical, yet scoreless first half of play in that Patriot League title game, which set up what would then be a very entertaining final 45 minutes of regulation.
In what he thought would be the game-winning goal, Bruno's tie-breaking strike in the 76th minute was ruled offside by the official and the Leopards ended up scoring just three minutes after to take a 1-0 lead.
"I remember feeling very frustrated and feeling like, 'oh man, is this going to be one of those games?,'" said Koski. "With the game being at Lafayette, I know referees can be easily influenced by the home crowd with the students right up against the fence line.
"I didn't have a great angle on it, but those are moments that you can't change and there's nothing you can do about it. But you could start seeing the tide changing a little bit after that because it was a huge letdown for our team not to get that goal."
After Lafayette scored the goal after the offsides call, it then began to feel like familiar territory for the Mountain Hawk players, having been the better team and ousted in two previous championship games in three seasons (in 1997 and 1998).
"When that ball went in off a corner kick, there was just that sinking feeling like 'this is happening again,'" said Casey. "It felt cruel and I went to the ref thinking Doug (Cusick) had been fouled and Andy Soisson is holding me back because I probably had gotten a yellow card already. But I felt like something had been stolen from me that had belonged to me. Of all places, to lose here (at Lafayette)."
Soisson, The Hero
It was nothing more than that 'rock fight' Bruno mentioned earlier between Lehigh and Lafayette, an all-out battle for the next 12 or so minutes as the Mountain Hawks frantically looked for the equalizing goal.
But then, a miracle happened. In the final minute of play, the referee called a foul on Lafayette with 20 seconds remaining, but stopped the clock with 8.4 seconds left due to Lafayette stalling.
As the officials on the field made the stalling call, Casey had enough time to get his position set, as he floated the ball up, finding the foot of Dan Perciballi who dished it to Soisson, beating the Leopards' goalkeeper for the equalizer as the regulation clock expired.
The Mountain Hawks were back in business.
"When the ref stopped the clock with eight seconds left, as I'm setting up my spot for the free kick, I'm thinking to myself already, 'I can't believe we lost this game,'" Casey said. "My dad told me at halftime to float the ball into the box instead of whipping it in and I did just that. The goalie fumbled it and it found Soisson.
"When the ball went in, we went…nuts. There were a lot of Lafayette fans there, but we brought a huge number of fans ourselves. It was insane."
For Soisson, the team's senior co-captain center back, that particular title-saving goal was his first of the season and it couldn't have come at a better time.
"Andy typically wouldn't have been up in that situation for us (as a center back), but when the clock stopped, we had time to bring the whole team forward," said Koski. "Andy (Soisson) was a scrum kind of guy and there was a scrum in the box, the ball landed fortuitously to him, had a half-chance and buried it.
"It was a great moment for Andy because he was an underappreciated and underrated player on our team and in the league because he just went out and did his job. He was the poster child for that. He never wanted credit, he showed up for training every day and worked hard. He was a leader by example and a really good character kid. I don't think there was a guy on the team that wasn't thrilled that Andy Soisson was the one to come through for us."
Even with overtime and a possible penalty shootout left to play, Andy Soisson was already going down in Lehigh history as the one that kept the team's hopes alive for a first league title in the closing seconds.
Little did he know that he'd be the one giving the Mountain Hawks that title just a mere minutes later.
With a penalty shootout, anything can happen. It's a toss-up who will actually come out on top and it's a lot less about tactics and game planning and all about skill, for both the goalkeeper and the striker.
The Mountain Hawks knew they had one of the best keepers in net for the shootout in Ryan Greszczak, who was just a sophomore at the time. He had already made plenty of game-saving saves throughout that entire contest, but needed one last push for the Patriot League title.
"Ryan's athletic ability was just off the charts," said Bruno. "This is a guy that was 5-9 and could pick balls out of the corner, when most goalkeepers today are 6-1 or 6-2. He was 5-9, but he had a 40-inch vertical leap. The guy was an incredible athlete."
As Greszczak handled Leopard strikers throughout that shootout, he put Lehigh in a position to win the title with a 4-3 lead and Soisson coming up to take that decisive PK.
"He was as cool as you could imagine," Bruno said. "He honestly stepped up to that penalty spot and was the fifth guy that went so we knew it was up to him. Lafayette had a guy sky one over the top of the crossbar and Andy stepped up, he was so calm and put it right into the side netting."
And just like that, the Mountain Hawks were the Patriot League Champions for the 2000 season. After so much adversity throughout the season and failing twice in the previous three years to capture that elusive crown, the team had finally shaken the monkey of its back.
"There just are no words to describe that feeling," Casey said. "When Andy's penalty went in, the absolute outpouring of joy was apparent on all of our faces. I think I was probably crying, I would imagine just from the sheer joy of it.
"All of that work that you would put in for years, bears fruit in this one moment, one that lasted like two seconds. I'll play soccer until I can't walk anymore, but nothing will ever come close to that moment. Nothing, it's impossible."
A Lasting Legacy
There's a saying that goes, "You'll never forget your first love," or pretty much anything you do for the first time.
For the Lehigh men's soccer program, a program that has been one of the most successful in the Patriot League since its inception, their first league title will never be forgotten.
There have been some really excellent teams in the program's history. 2000, 2002, 2006, 2015 and 2019 are some of the ones that stand out the most, the ones that qualified for the NCAA Tournament. But that 2000 team is the one that started it all, a legacy that will continue forward for the remainder of time.
"I think this team's legacy is that they were the first to do it," Koski said. "They broke the ice and they got us over that elusive championship hurdle. We had been in championship games before and had fallen short. We had very successful seasons and been in a lot of Patriot League semifinals and finals over the course of my career, so to capture that title in the way that we did, at Lafayette, in overtime, penalty kicks and scoring with eight seconds left to tie it up was really fitting of that year and that team.
"It was a signature of their character, their togetherness and their team-first mentality. That certainly helped us as a coaching staff understand the importance of moving forward after that. This team, probably more than any other team I've coached, was successful for the relationships they built and for all the personalities those players had."
Bruno, Casey, Soisson, Wrobel, Perciballi, Cusick, Roach, Greszczak and countless others. It doesn't get much more special than those group of extraordinary student-athletes.