BETHLEHEM, Pa. – Winning a Patriot League Championship is difficult. All the right pieces need to fit together in order to do so. Winning two straight Patriot League Championships is even harder.
In Spring 2021, that's what the Lehigh Men's Soccer team is going to attempt to do. Despite not seeing game action in 472 days, the Mountain Hawks are the favored team in the league to repeat and claim a fourth league title in program history.
Lehigh was spectacular in 2019, going 13-5-3 overall with a 6-0-3 record in Patriot League play and an unbeaten record at home at the Ulrich Sports Complex at 7-0-3 including a title-winning victory in front of 1,705 fans against Lafayette.
The difference this season is that the schedule takes place in the spring, contrary to the usual fall colors on South Mountain. In addition, fan cutouts currently adorn the Ulrich stands instead of screaming fans, family and friends. Nonetheless, soccer will be played and the Mountain Hawks look to have the squad once again to get the job done, despite the long layoff.
"I don't think anyone has been able to stay in Division I match during this time, because the only way that you can do that is to play matches," said head coach Dean Koski in his 29th season. "The fact that our team hasn't had a real match since November 2019, they didn't have a spring 2020, they didn't play in summer league and have 32 players that haven't played a full-length match in over a year, until you play matches, nobody is going to get there.
"It's our job starting now to manage our players so that they can perform to the best of their level over the course of a game. Whether that's 40 minutes or whether that's 20, we just need to get the most out of them."
Starting in goal, Lehigh is without long-time starting goalkeeper Will Smith for the first time, after he was named Patriot League Goalkeeper of the Year and Patriot League Tournament MVP in 2019. Two familiar faces return between the pipes in Noah Sutherland and Andrew Fishman, while two new faces enter the fold in freshmen Blake Koski and Jesse Ryan. Of the four, there are zero games of collegiate experience, but Coach Koski is confident in this group nevertheless.
"We are fortunate to have four really solid keepers in our program," Koski said. "I think Noah has done a great job of rebounding from his injuries and not being able to play soccer for over a year. To come back and be in the kind of form he's been in, it's been really impressive and exciting to watch, so he's going to start in our opener. We're excited for him and he's earned it.
"Right behind him is Blake, who has shown some promise and potential and they're pushing each other in a very good way. I think they're both growing and improving. Jesse and Fish will be our emergency keepers, but they both come out and train really hard and who knows when we will need them and they will need to be ready to go."
The Mountain Hawks backline is still deep with many players that have plenty of experience, but the heart and soul of the defense, Zarin Tuten, is gone and graduated from the team. Smith and Tuten were big reasons Lehigh had shut-out 19 opponents between 2018 and 2019. Returning is senior Tyler Dressman and Preseason All-Patriot League selection Nick Jennings. The Mountain Hawks also get back regular starters on defense in sophomores Euan Forrest and Andrew White, as well as junior Dawson Berger who started at back in Lehigh's NCAA Tournament match against Pitt.
"We have a lot of moving parts with the backs," said Koski. "Some of those decisions are based off guys coming off injuries. We're certainly not 100 percent back there, but I like what we've seen with Tyler who is probably going to anchor us in the center. Euan and freshman Hassane Diakho have done really well for us. White, Dominic Flowers, Thatcher Cooper and Berger and Jonathan Blaine have all been in the mix. Once Nick is back, he'll be an important factor for us.
"We've been pleased with all the backs, we have really good depth back there. I don't expect many backs to be playing 90 minutes, but we have guys on the bench that can step right in and play."
Looking at the middle, senior Stevo Bednarsky comes into the season fit and ready to prove why he was named Preseason Patriot League Midfielder of the Year coming into the campaign. He was excellent in 2019, named both First Team All-Patriot League and a Second Team All-Atlantic Region selection by the United Soccer Coaches. Entering this season as the program's captain for the second year in a row, Bednarsky scored two goals and an assist for five points including a game-winning goal in his junior season. Trevor Koski, the Second Team All-Patriot League selection in 2019, is back as a midfield option, as well as sophomore Natan Rosen.
"Stevo will always be one of the best players in the league," Koski said. "Certainly he is going to anchor us in the midfield this year. He's had a very good spring preseason for us and with him in the middle of the park and if Trevor can play, they will have the most experience.
"But we have Bratislav who is playing very well for us right now, as well as Michael Tahiru and Natan. We feel like we have some really good answers in the middle and when we go to the bench. We're really pleased with what that group is doing so far."
Lehigh has a lot of scoring options up front at the forward position in spring 2021, of course being led by reigning Patriot League Offensive Player of the Year and All-American Josh Luchini, who enters his junior year. Luchini scored 11 goals with two assists in 2019 including five game-winning goals. He has 17 goals, six assists and 40 points in two seasons so far. Aside from Luchini, Jack Sarkos is back looking for more opportunities, as well as junior Michael Tahiru, who scored the game-winning goal in Lehigh's 1-0 Patriot League title victory over Lafayette. Senior Bratislav Petkovic has had a strong spring, as well as junior Valentine Perevalov.
"We probably have more depth at the forward position than we've had in a long time," said Koski. "Josh will definitely headline that and our expectations of him are never going to change, but we have plenty of players like Jack, Natan and Michael that can play up top as well. We feel we have the guys that can give us some depth up there where we don't have to put all the weight and burden on Josh.
"I expect us to be running more than just Josh out there throughout this season. We'll see, but we're pleased with what we've seen so far out of our attacking players."
As with any new team, the freshman class will be the interesting story once again. Seven players are calling Lehigh home for the first time in spring 2021 and all have varying skillsets and positions. As mentioned earlier, Koski and Ryan are the Mountain Hawks' new goalkeepers. Lehigh gets two forward/midfielder combination players in Austin Recinos and Austen Carranza, while Hassane Diakho, Nolan Jetter and Michael Laret shore up the midfield/defense position groups.
"This has been our most difficult year to assess and evaluate our freshmen because we didn't really have the luxury of a preseason and a very abbreviated fall season," said Koski. "But then we didn't have any time prior to that. So, our sense of the freshman has really happened over the last four weeks. It's a short amount of time to be able to evaluate them effectively.
"But they have been exactly what we expected when we recruited them. Some are further along than others, some have surprised us and nobody's disappointed us. They're a really good group and a number of them are going to help us this year, whether starting or coming off the bench. The freshman class is providing us with really quality depth that we're going to need particularly with some injuries that we have. You're going to have that during this stretch and so we're going to use them to the best of our ability if we think they are ready and if not, that's OK, they have time."
In a new format to the Patriot League Tournament due to less games and opportunities to play one another, only four teams will qualify for the postseason in spring 2021 with two semifinal games and a Championship. The Mountain Hawks, picked first in the preseason poll, have been placed in a tough South division along with foes Loyola, Navy, American and Bucknell. Of that divisional group, for of the five qualified for the Patriot League Tournament in 2019.
"Our instincts as a coaching staff this season is to treat every game like a tournament game," Koski said. "You can't conserve energy or players in a year like this. When we start our regular season, we typically start the year with five or six non-league games where you can build into your league slate. Knowing that we don't have that, we're flying out of the train station at 100 miles per hour. Every game matters, every minute matters.
"Conditioning our guys and preparing them for a playoff mentality from the very first game is going to be our most important goal. I think we are close to that. I think they get it and understand that, but you can't look ahead and you can't take any breathers because it's all about trying to get as many points as you can to be one of those four teams remaining at the end."
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