The Lehigh women's soccer program is in the midst of one of its strongest sustained stretches of success in program history. If the Mountain Hawks advance to the 2019 Patriot League Tournament, it would be their fourth straight postseason appearance, a program record.
A Patriot League Tournament berth is the result of the process. This group is focused on the journey and genuinely enjoying the process of improving every day.
"I take the most pride in the fact that when we leave the field, referees, opposing coaches and people who watch the game see that we play really good soccer and we're a really good team," said Lehigh head coach Eric Lambinus. "They say we work together, we're fit, we knock the ball around and we're fun to watch."
The Mountain Hawks have given onlookers a lot to be impressed by, finishing 11-5-2 in 2016 and 9-5-4 in 2017 before advancing to the Patriot League Championship Game last season as the No. 5 seed. Lehigh became the lowest-ever seed to reach the title game.
Not only is the program's skill level increasing, but also chemistry and camaraderie. The current team features 29 student-athletes all working together towards the collective goal.
"They all understand they have a role, and each role could be a little different," said Lambinus. "They're learning about their strengths and skillsets, and how it can be a value to the team. They just have to bring their best every day and leave it up to the coaching staff to make the right decisions. We've built enough trust in the way we've developed players and how people have earned spots over time."
Someone who has earned a spot over time is junior goalkeeper Miranda Royds.
"Miranda has come so far from her freshman to junior year," said Lambinus. "She struggled a little bit at first, has improved with confidence and has turned herself into a player who can be a starting goalie in the Patriot League."
Royds saw plenty of action last season, playing in 11 games and posting a 1.01 goals against average and 80.0 save percentage. Good numbers, no doubt, but she has only improved since the end of 2018.
"We set a plan for her to improve in so many areas… and she did," said Lambinus. "She literally accomplished every single one of them and I'm really proud of the way she's come into her own. The team has a lot of confidence in her, and it's shown."
In front of Royds will be an experienced defensive line, anchored by four-year starter Annika Jansa.
"The back line is where we have our most experience," said Lambinus. "Annika back there leading the line is such an important player, so calm. We're better when she's on the field – not only defensively, as she's probably the best 1v1 defender that we have, but offensively, her timing's great and her distribution is awesome.
"Then, we have Mackenzie Anton, Ally Friedman, Libby Andrews, Erin Keefeand Bridget Casey, who have played a lot of minutes for us," Lambinus continued. "Each of them have their own unique skill sets and can do a lot of really good things, and we have some others who could see some time as well. We have really good depth and experience on the back line."
Having a strong defense will prove important, especially with the Mountain Hawks' anticipated style of play. Last season, Lehigh's attack came alive late in the year, helping it win thrilling Patriot League Quarterfinal and Semifinal contests. The hope is for the offensive firepower to only improve heading into the 2019 campaign.
"The way we're lining up is probably a little more attack-oriented than we have in the past," said Lambinus. "We're going to take some more chances. I believe we're going to have the ball a lot, so we have to be really good 1v1 defending. (Preseason All-Patriot League honoree) Kayla Arestivo, Lisa Kestelboym and Maggie Wadsworth are a really good combination. We also have a couple younger players who have done well in the spring and preseason and will make an impact in the midfield. They're starting to really understand the position, the shape, and they're strong defensively."
The Mountain Hawks will feature plenty of options at forward capable of putting the ball in the back of the net.
"Attack-wise, it's the most options we've had since probably 2010," said Lambinus. "We have a number of people on our front line who can play and they all bring different things. Becca Van Siclen is so good 1v1, Sid Warnecker is such a physical presence out wide who can change the momentum of a game at any time. Courtney Supp gave us a lot of minutes last year, has great movement off the ball, she battles, fights and has shown she can score big goals. As a junior, Grace Forsyth has really solidified herself as a key player for us. IQ wise, she is probably one of the smartest players that we have and puts herself in good spots.
"A couple freshmen could contribute as well," Lambinus continued. "Ryelle Shuey gives us a presence that we've never had and Julianna Bonner is really good on the 1v1 and in the wide area. Chloe Sherman scored a goal in Sunday's scrimmage, her first time getting on the field for a collegiate game. We should have really good depth; we just have to utilize it and find the right combinations."
The current senior class has done so much over their careers, and will look to lead the Mountain Hawks with not only their individual play, but also their leadership.
"It's a group that's contributed a lot on the field," said Lambinus. "Our goal is to give each one of them the opportunity to have their best seasons. They are growing, they have gotten better each year and we have a better idea of what they do well and how they can fit into our system. If we can get the best out of them, it should funnel down to the rest of the team."
A theme with this team has been pride in working for each other.
"If we continue to do everything with pride for each other, the results will take care of themselves," said Lambinus. "I believe we're a team that can compete with every opponent on our schedule, but I just want every day to be better and see if we can build, build, build. We're not trying to compare ourselves to other teams. We really can't compare ourselves to other teams in the Patriot League because we're different. All we can do is compare ourselves to Lehigh the day before. Can we be better the next day?"
One reason the Mountain Hawks are getting better as a program is Lauren Calabrese, recently promoted to associate head coach.
"I will say, our success and growth as program – the way we've gotten better and the way our recruiting has improved – is a big result of what Cal has brought to our team," said Lambinus. "She understands Lehigh, understands the culture and understands how we want to develop student-athletes. There is no coincidence that since she's been on board, we have really started to improve in a lot of those areas.
"She challenges me on a daily basis to be a better coach, and every coach needs that," Lambinus continued. "Her move to associate head coach is unbelievably well deserved. I consider her a co-head coach with me. She makes every bit of decisions as I do. We're happy she's going to stick around with us and continue to be part of the family we've developed."
Win, lose or draw, Lehigh women's soccer is truly a family, always there to support one another. Remember, this family is focused on the journey and genuinely enjoying the process of improving every day.
"The players are rooting for each other," said Lambinus. "They're not competing against each other, but rather with each other. And as long as they do that and try to make each other better every day, I believe the chemistry will be strong and the results will come."