The last time the Lehigh women's soccer team played a game was more than 16 months ago.
That wait will finally end this Saturday vs. American (5:30 p.m. on ESPN+), and the Mountain Hawks couldn't be more excited.
"It's almost like they're shot out of a cannon at practice," said Lehigh head coach Eric Lambinus. "We've had some players come back and it was literally like a runaway train."
In many/most ways, that's a good thing – because the love and excitement for the game is as strong as ever – but there's also a rust factor as well from not playing in so long.
"It's almost like re-learning how to train because when you self-train, you go at a pace that works for you," said Lambinus. "And it's a little bit different in small groups. Once we got the bigger group back, it took a little while to figure things out, and how to accept the rustiness. When you just don't play as much, it's a challenge, but they're definitely super excited."
Lambinus is also excited about the group that returns, which starts with the team's senior class (Chloe Tremblay, Ally Friedman, Grace Forsyth, Libby Andrews, Lisa Kestelboym Mackenzie Anton and Miranda Royds). They bring not only great production on the field, but also great leadership.
The current COVID-19 pandemic has made leadership even more challenging, but the Mountain Hawks are stepping up to the plate.
"We've grown a lot in our leadership," said Lambinus. "If I think about a year ago, our senior class was doing a great job, but now we're leading in different ways. We had to learn how to lead in the COVID environment – what can we do, what can't we do, how we keep our groups small and get ourselves in a position to be able to train."
Perhaps the biggest challenge has been pure physical proximity.
"It's super hard to lead teammates you don't see on a regular basis," said Lambinus. "But our senior class has done a really good job of it. I think they've learned a lot about themselves, they've learned a lot about their teammates and how to go about leading."
First and foremost, Lambinus wants to make sure the team has strong leadership in simple COVID-19 health and safety habits, which allows the opportunity to compete.
"Once we get on the field, it's going back to some stuff we've worked on in the past," said Lambinus. "Our senior group is good, and some underclassmen are doing a really good job too. We know we have a really good leadership group."
That group is looking to lead a roster that has depth of talent all over the field.
Despite narrowly missing the Patriot League Tournament in 2019, the Mountain Hawks were in practically every game and picked up impressive wins over Bucknell, Boston University (for the program's first-ever win over the Terriers) and Holy Cross (handing the Crusaders' their first and only Patriot League loss of the regular season).
"We've always been a pretty good team, but make no mistake, we've struggled to score a bit," said Lambinus. "We haven't been as clinical or as good in the final third with our decision making. We've changed up our system a little bit, one because of the composition of our team. We want to make sure we have depth in all of our positions."
Defensively, the Mountain Hawks are perennially at or near the top of the Patriot League. Lambinus' biggest area of focus this spring has been in the final third.
As he said, "What are things we can do in the final third to get the ball in better positions? Where are 75 percent of the goals scored in women's soccer at the college level?
"We know all that information," Lambinus continued. "It's now setting up our training session and reps to make sure we're reping those things, then having our players develop a mentality of getting the ball into those positions."
Lambinus has liked what he's seen in practice so far.
"We've solidified positions for some of our upperclassmen a bit and have some young talent that's going to help us," he said. "I see a lot of good things in training. We've been scoring a lot of goals. We've worked on it a lot and hope it comes to fruition when we play games."
The thought of games are almost strange after such a long layoff, not only for the players, but also coaches.
"One of the biggest challenges, honestly as a coaching staff, is as much as the players haven't played a game since 2019, we haven't seen a game either," said Lambinus. "Being able to evaluate our players and see where we are has been challenging. Going to practice every day and watching the players play is great. We're just not always sure what to judge it against."
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought so many unknowns to not only sports, but also life. Lambinus knows navigating these unprecedented times will only make everyone stronger in the end.
"It has been a challenge for student-athletes, getting their bodies and minds acclimated back to playing and consistently training," he said. "The good thing is it's teaching a lot of resiliency. Not having a set schedule, not knowing who's going to be at practice, etc.
"This will probably be the least prepared we'll be going into a game, considering all the time [since our last one]," Lambinus continued. "But that's okay. That's what college athletics is about. Maybe it allows us to play a little freer and enjoy it more."
The student-athletes and coaches are enjoying every moment, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic took the game away for so long. Quite simply, the Mountain Hawks are excited to compete.
"We are competing for a Patriot League Championship," said Lambinus. "Some of that might be in our control, some of it might not be in our control. What is within our control is competing every day, showing up to training and becoming the best version of ourselves. I've told the team, nobody cares how many practices we've missed, nobody cares how many different surfaces we've trained on and nobody cares whether or not we're fit.
"The minute you walk on the field, nobody cares."
The Mountain Hawks' focus in 2021 is controlling what they control, and that is competing.
"I fully expect to play more players than we've ever played before because we're just not ready to play 90 minutes," said Lambinus. "We're hoping that players are ready to take that challenge. While we're going to take advantage of being able to play, it's not enough just to show up.
"It doesn't matter if we are coming off quarantine or don't have our entire team; we've got to show up and play because the other team doesn't care," he continued. "They want to win and will take advantage if we aren't ready to play. And that's life. When we show up, play a game and put a Lehigh jersey on, we better get after it. That has to be our mentality every day and I so far, I've seen it in our players."