By: Justin Lafleur, Lehigh Sports Communications
Over the last two seasons, the Lehigh women's soccer team has lost just 10 times in 36 games, posting a combined record of 20-10-6.
There's a clear trend.
The Mountain Hawks have squarely put themselves among the best teams in the Patriot League with a realistic goal of competing for championships, year in and year out.
"We've put ourselves in the top half of the league," said Lehigh head coach Eric Lambinus. "Our goal is to be a consistent contender in the league over a long period of time and we're going to continue working on putting ourselves in position to win the games at the end of the season."
The Lehigh women's soccer program is continually improving, and never satisfied. Lambinus is focused on not only having success, but also sustaining it.
"We've built the program over a number of years to get here and we don't want to just win [the championship] and fall back off," he said. "We're in a pretty good position with our culture and the talent level to sustain the success. We're competing with the top teams in our league and we want to continue doing that and give ourselves a chance to win it when the right circumstances come around."
The 2017 season saw major strides forward. Let's take a look back.
Making Strides in Nonleague
The Mountain Hawks lost just twice in nonleague action, both coming in the same weekend - vs. Towson and at Delaware - but they rebounded by not losing for the next 27 days. Even in those defeats, Lehigh played well, outshooting Towson (24-9) and Delaware (14-8).
"That weekend was a learning curve. We played pretty well in those games, but we didn't finish," said Lambinus. "In the nonleague, we learned that we can play pretty good soccer against good teams. When we came out in a 3-4-3 formation with three in the back, we were worried we wouldn't be as stout defensively as we were in 2016.
"Could we control the ball in the midfield a little bit more? Could we create more chances than we did the previous year? That was the goal."
In 2016, the Mountain Hawks allowed just 12 goals in 18 games, beginning the season with 758:34 straight shutout minutes. It was a tough act to follow, but Lehigh continued the stellar defense in 2017, all while creating more offensive chances as well.
Despite only three in the back, the Mountain Hawks allowed identical numbers in 2017, 12 goals in 18 games. Meanwhile, they averaged 15.2 shots per game and outshot opponents by an average of 2.8 per contest. Compare that to 2016 when the Mountain Hawks averaged just 12.8 shots, getting outshot by an average of 0.3.
"The 3-4-3 gave us an advantage in the nonleague because not too many teams play it," said Lambinus. "It gave us numbers in the midfield and allowed us to establish our width easier. We were able to utilize the whole field and still put numbers in the midfield."
The Mountain Hawks consistently generated more, and better, chances than the past, scoring in 13 of their 18 games on the season. Lehigh began the season with a scoreless draw vs. a strong Monmouth team that went on to win the MAAC regular season and tournament titles for a second straight season. The Mountain Hawks swept the following weekend in Philadelphia, defeating Penn (1-0) and Temple (2-1 in overtime). It marked Lehigh's sixth and seventh consecutive wins over Philadelphia area schools, dating back to 2015.
Following the losses to Towson and Delaware, the Mountain Hawks swept the ensuing weekend against Villanova and St. John's of the Big East, winning 1-0 and 2-1, respectively. The St. John's victory saw sophomore Kayla Arestivo give Lehigh an early 1-0 lead, the Red Storm responded on a rebound off a penalty kick, but sophomore Annika Jansa converted a penalty kick of her own to give Lehigh a 2-1 second-half lead. The game saw plenty of offensive chances, saves by Sam Miller and even a tremendous defensive play by eventual All-Patriot League honoree Amanda Stratton in the final minutes to preserve the 2-1 victory.
"That game was back-to-back and on the road," said Lambinus. "It gave us confidence. It was probably one of our better games throughout the year. We were good for 90 minutes."
Patriot League Success
That consistency from St. John's carried over into Patriot League play. Lehigh opened with a 2-0 win at Army West Point before earning ties vs. Boston University and Colgate, two teams that would go on to top-four finishes in the standings. A loss at Navy gave Lehigh its first defeat in four weeks.
"Everything we did was trying to prepare ourselves for the league," said Lambinus. "We wanted to keep that consistency going. I don't think we ever played another 90-minute game after St. John's, but we were more consistent throughout those games. There wasn't a game we weren't in. We had gone five years without winning a league game by more than a goal. The league was always one goal, one way or the other, but this year, we had four multi-goal wins: Army (2-0), Lafayette (2-0), Loyola (2-0) and Holy Cross (3-0).
"We also only gave up multiple goals in two games, so we had a more consistent performance. We were disappointed to have to go on the road for the quarterfinals, considering we had a better record than 2016 when we were home, but we knew we were going to be in the top five and would have to play a quality team anyway."
Owning a 1-1-2 league mark following a challenging early Patriot League schedule, the season could have gone in many directions. For this group, it went up.
"Even though it wasn't' the best start record wise, we knew the level of soccer we were playing," said Lambinus. "There have been times when we may have fallen off, but instead we went on to win four of the next five games."
The postseason saw the Mountain Hawks play a nip-and-tuck game at Colgate, but a perfectly-placed shot in the 99th minute sent Lehigh home in heartbreaking fashion for a second straight season.
The disappointment from the overtime loss is obvious. Noone wants to lose, especially with such a talented team that had potential to make a deep run into the postseason. But more important than the singular view of the 2017 season is where the program is headed.
The Mountain Hawks made many strides in 2017 to continue building a strong and sustainable culture, and program.
"In 2016, we were really solid defensively and we were hard to break down, but we also got outshot a lot," said Lambinus. "We didn't control the game; we just defended well and made it hard on our opponents. The big change in 2017 was style of play. We had to have doubled the number of passes that we created. The amount of time that we had possession of the ball in the middle third of the field was really good. We were just as good defensively, and we were so much better in the middle third of the field.
"The next step is taking another jump in the offensive third of the field. In the attacking area, where we were getting chances, can we create better chances? Can we be a little bit more lethal in that final third and put more goals in?"
Even though the Mountain Hawks averaged just 1.11 goals in 2017, they were more consistent across games, scoring one or two goals in most contests and only being shut-out five times (two of those five were scoreless draws).
"We were really consistent defensively, we were consistently creating chances and still scoring," said Lambinus. "It wasn't three or four in one game and zero in another."
Moving forward, the pieces are in place for the Mountain Hawks to continue improving. The program loses a talented senior class, which featured there 2017 All-Patriot League honorees in Alyssa Riporti, Adrian Vitello and Amanda Stratton, but Lehigh women's soccer program looks to continue, and improve upon, its success.
"We have a good core of players," said Lambinus. "A good amount of our attacking group return, 19 of our 20 goals, and we bring back Sid (Sidonie Warnecker) who was one of our leading scorers the year before.
"We lose a number of good players, seniors who have led us in a really good direction. They're going to be difficult to replace, but each team is different. Our talent and our strength in 2018 might be something different than 2017. Our goal over the course of the next nine months is to figure that out."
Lambinus and the Mountain Hawks are building from the ground up. They're building a strong base, which should allow new players to step into the roles of departed seniors and not miss a beat.
"I believe we've been pretty consistent in our recruiting," said Lambinus. "I think there's a consistency in the criteria and rating system we use to select players. We just have to continue developing them the right way. We always knew players like Alyssa, Amanda and Adrian had the potential to be All-League players, but we just had to develop and allow them to grow into their best selves during their careers. If we do that with our current and incoming groups, we could have a special team."
Lambinus knows that as long as the program stays true to its beliefs, the Mountain Hawks will sustain their success. Even though 2017 didn't end in a championship, what happened during the year helped build the foundation for a championship season sometime in the future.
"We have a good core, we have standards and we have things we truly believe in," said Lambinus. "We talk about being the toughest, hardest-working, cohesive and purposeful team. Those standards will always be evident within our program."
At 20-10-6 over the last two seasons, the Mountain Hawks are well on their way…