By: Justin Lafleur, Lehigh Sports Communications
Despite three ACL tears and four surgeries, Natalie Hojnacki wasn't ready to walk away.
She returned to the 2010 Lehigh women's soccer team for a fifth year with one goal in mind.
"I always wanted to play Division I soccer… and always wanted to play in the NCAA Tournament," said Hojnacki. "I had dedicated so much time and energy to soccer. I wasn't willing to give it up, and knew I would never have this opportunity again."
Hojnacki took advantage of the opportunity, helping the Mountain Hawks reach their goal of a Patriot League Championship and NCAA Tournament appearance. At the same time, she earned her graduate degree in economics (after finishing her undergraduate degree in finance).
Today, Hojnacki is reaching her goals in the business world. She currently serves as Chief of Staff at Annaly Capital Management in New York City
"I work in Midtown Manhattan," said Hojnacki. "I've been at the company for eight years now. I'm working on our middle market lending team, but started on our corporate strategy team. Now in a director-level position, I manage anything we put out in terms of our portfolio, strategy or anything that's investor-facing."
Annaly is a mortgage real estate investment trust which invests in assets, with an end goal of generating net income to distribute to its stockholders. The middle market lending team is a diversification play within the broader strategy.
"For example, whenever we release earnings on a quarterly basis, I help decide the earnings themes for our business, what we're going to talk about regarding our portfolio and how we're going to position things," said Hojnacki. "I'm responsible for the high-level investor-facing thought process."
Hojnacki is in a management position while also getting her hands dirty since her team is lean (consisting of only 12 people).
"I go across the gamut," she said.
A strong work ethic, which proved important in Hojnacki's Lehigh days, has continued in the business world. Her first full-time position came with Citi as an investment banking analyst.
"Lehigh football alum Chris Hite (father of current LUWS first-year Allie Hite) recruited on campus for Citi and health care investment banking," said Hojnacki. "He was the head of the group at that time, and for a long time. He gave me a lot of insight into the investment banking world, and really encouraged me to pursue it."
"It" was a career that began at Citi.
"It was a great opportunity, but a little intimidating," said Hojnacki. "The 100-hour work weeks and really crazy lifestyle allowed me to learn so much so quickly and allowed me to be in a strong position when I got hired at Annaly after two years at Citi."
Hojnacki began at Annaly as an associate, working in a corporate strategy role, which included responsibilities in capital markets and investor relations.
"From day one, I was in meetings with our CEO (Chief Executive Officer), our head of general counsel, our CFO (Chief Financial Officer) and CIO (Chief Information Officer)," she said. "I asked myself… what qualified me to be here?
"I believe I owe a lot to the experience that both Lehigh and banking provided."
After beginning as an associate, Hojnacki has been promoted several times over her tenure – to vice president and now director and Chief of Staff.
She credits Lehigh for helping set the foundation for a lifetime of leadership.
"Time management and work ethic are so key in everything I do," said Hojnacki. "Lehigh enforced my ability to be a team player, communicate with people and keep everybody working towards the same goal, despite different styles. I learned how to be efficient, communicate and make the kinds of decisions necessary to ultimately come out with the best final product."
Today, Hojnacki is leading others in the business world. A decade ago, she was leading her teammates on the 2010 Patriot League Champion Mountain Hawks.
"We had a great group of seniors and fifth-year seniors, so we had lot of leadership," said Hojnacki. "We were very, very close as a team. I'm still great friends with my teammates. We were so close and on the same page in terms of being united in our goals and being driven in the same ways.
"We were playing for each other."
The 2010 Mountain Hawks were led by current head coach Eric Lambinus, who was in his first year at Lehigh. Being new to the program, Lambinus relied on upperclassmen like Hojnacki to take ownership of where the team wanted to go.
"Coach tried to empower the seniors to step up," said Hojnacki. "And for people who hadn't had as big of a role, he tried to encourage them to step up to the plate and be leaders as well."
As Lambinus said, "Natalie was willing to accept a new coach who wanted to do some things a little different while also building enough trust to teach that young coach to find common ground to lead a group of tough, hard-working, cohesive and purposeful student-athletes to reach our goals."
"Coach had asked me at the beginning of the season to essentially be the 'captain of the captains' and help empower them to have that voice and become leaders," said Hojnacki.
What did the seniors want from their final season?
A Patriot League Championship.
"The year before, we were a great team, but didn't get to that championship," said Hojnacki. "During the 2010 season, that was the only thing the fifth-year seniors (Liz Carlos and Lauren Glazebrook being the others) really came back to do."
Hojnacki admits it took some time for the team to get into a rhythm. After a 1-1-1 start, Lehigh won three straight. The Mountain Hawks ended the regular season with a 9-4-4 record, including 4-1-2 in Patriot League play, to earn the No. 3 seed in the league tournament.
"It wasn't by any means easy, but we had a very strong end of the regular season," said Hojnacki. "It built a sense of confidence and contributed to a realization that we were just as good, if not better, than anyone on the field.
"We worked so hard to get there; we were not willing to go home without a championship."
A pair of 1-0 Patriot League Tournament wins, over Bucknell and Army, gave the Mountain Hawks that coveted crown.
For Hojnacki, the championship represented much more than a trophy. It stood for all the adversity she fought through to not only be on the team, but also be an important contributor (she finished the year third on the team in points with 13 via five goals and three assists… this after a knee surgery the summer prior). She attributed her perseverance largely to the constant support from her parents.
"My dad has always told me that you're not defined by soccer," said Hojnacki.
"You're defined by how you respond to adversity.
"I fought through a lot of adversity in college, whether it was an injury or season where we didn't reach our goals. How you respond really defines who you are as a person – and team – and I believe that's honestly what led us to the 2010 Patriot League Championship."
Flash forward and today, Hojnacki is using championship-winning life skills in the business world.
"Without question, Natalie was one of the best student-athlete leaders I have ever had the fortune of working with in my career," said Lambinus. "She epitomized the mission of our athletic department to Learn, Grow and Lead. Natalie was one of the main driving forces behind our 2010 Patriot League Championship and truly exemplifies all the traits in which we base our LUWS mission.
"It does not surprise me one bit to see her succeed post-Lehigh."
Hojnacki knows for there to be success in any team setting, there needs to be constant competition to push each other to the collective goal.
"You see someone working really hard, putting in extra time, and that inspires you to also work harder and be better," said Hojnacki. "I always perform better when there's someone challenging me.
"At the same time, when things get super busy and everyone has a lot on their plates, you offer to help a teammate," she continued. "It's what really brings a team together and allows you to achieve even better results."
Hojnacki's Lehigh story was defined by responding from setbacks. Remember what her father said?
"You're defined by how you respond to adversity."
"There's always going to be setbacks," said Natalie. "Putting your head down, being willing to put in the work and keeping a positive attitude are all extremely important in order to keep moving forward."
It helped Hojnacki become a Patriot League Champion 10 years ago…
And a champion in life today.