By: Justin Lafleur, Lehigh Sports Communications
The Patriot League's vision includes the following sentence…
"Student-athletes are prepared to become leaders and to make meaningful contributions to society."
Part of the mission of Lehigh Athletics is to set up student-athletes for a lifetime of leadership. As former First Lady of the United States Rosalyn Carter once said, "A great leader takes people where they don't necessarily want to go, but ought to be."
No one from Lehigh (or the Patriot League) wants to be where we are, canceling sports amidst a pandemic. But that's what needed to be done last March, and that's what needed to be done on Monday in the interest of health and safety.
The decision to cancel fall sports naturally brings extreme disappointment, but also an opportunity.
An opportunity to adapt.
"The ability to adapt to one's environment is essential in sports… in work… and in life," said head men's soccer coach Dean Koski. "This will be a wonderful opportunity to challenge our linear approach to a typical college season and think outside the box to perhaps, coach differently and progress our student-athletes in a different model."
That model is one everyone will be tackling for the first time, and tackling it together. That model could include on-campus workouts, lifts and practices, as long as local and university guidelines are followed. In other words, personal and team growth and development should continue in some shape or form. What was removed on Monday was outside competition (although the Patriot League is exploring the feasibility of the fall sports competing in the spring).
For all the disappointment, one of the most meaningful aspects of being a collegiate student-athlete are the bonds with each other.
"We want take advantage of any opportunity we have to play the game we love, together," said head women's soccer coach Eric Lambinus. "If that is modified training this fall in preparation for potential competition in the spring, then that's what we'll do.
"My hope is that this experience enables each student-athlete to truly understand how special it is to play soccer at Lehigh and when the time comes and we're given the green light to play, we will do it with our whole heart."
Before the pandemic, student-athletes poured their hearts and souls into their sport. It's like a full-time job, and some. The pandemic has brought an even greater appreciation for their sport, and the Mountain Hawk student-athletes have gone about the last several months very maturely.
"We spoke to our seniors last week to share some of the challenges we were facing as we saw many conferences around us make the decision to cancel," said head field hockey coach Caitlin Dallmeyer. "We had a team meeting Monday morning, just minutes before the [Patriot League] news broke. The general reaction was disappointment, but not necessarily surprise. We had shared with them the challenges that we were working through, including testing and safety protocols, so they had an idea of how hard people were working to make it a possibility."
For as much as the Patriot League wanted to make it work, with the rising COVID-19 cases nation-wide, it wasn't feasible, practical or in the best interest of health and safety.
"I am appreciative of the thought that went into making this difficult decision and applaud the Patriot League Council of Presidents for doing what is in the best interest of our student-athletes and campus community," said Koski. "We need to see ourselves as leaders in college athletics and make decisions that reflect the league's core mission, regardless of public pressure or perceptions."
In making difficult decisions, the current leaders of the Patriot League are serving as a model example for the leaders of tomorrow – the student-athletes.
"We are all living in an unprecedented time and we need to adapt and evolve to make the best of the situation," said Lambinus. "We have outstanding individuals in our women's soccer program and I know they will all utilize this adversity to become better versions of themselves. It is our responsibilities as educators to guide them through this process."
These unprecedented times have brought so many ups and downs, which can change (and have changed) in the matter of weeks, or even days.
"I love roller coasters," said head women's cross country coach Debbie Utesch. "As a coach, the buildup to my sport season is like the anticipation of that initial long, slow climb to the top of the first big drop of the coaster. Then, preseason practice begins and I go speeding through the season with all of its twists, turns and upside down loops.
"On Monday, that ride came to a screeching halt," she continued. "In this environment of increasing COVID-19 cases, the Patriot League's difficult decision to halt fall sports was anticipated by most coaches.
"But as highly competitive people, that doesn't mean we didn't want to finish the ride."
The opportunity to finish the ride could still happen in the spring. But for now, the focus within Lehigh Athletics is to focus on the present, appreciate every opportunity (even if it doesn't look the same as last fall) and get better individually and collectively.
The hope is that hard work this fall will pay off in the form of spring competition against outside opponents. But no matter what, the student-athletes, coaches and staff are becoming better people by going through these challenges, even if they're not consciously realizing it.
"We will take advantage of the fall having lost all of last spring," said Koski. "Younger players who didn't play much in the fall missed the spring segment, which is an important developmental phase. We can get them caught up this fall and now, we get to evaluate incoming freshmen for four months rather than two weeks. We see this decision as an opportunity to teach more, learn more and grow more as a team."
"In reference to one of our senior's favorite analogies, 'We spent eight months building a rocket ship that could have taken us to the moon, a place our program has never seen before. Our bags were packed, seatbelts on and technical difficulties outside of our control have now made it impossible to launch,'" said Dallmeyer.
"It is important to understand that we will continue to be a strong representation of our program and though what we can accomplish this semester might not be game results, it can still be powerful in continuing to move forward in new ways."