March 14, 2012

Lehigh's Cinderella Run Started With Players-Only Meeting

by Laurel Pfahler | | Related: Lehigh Photo Gallery

Freshman goaltender Matt Poillon has been stellar for a Lehigh defense that has allowed only 4.2 goals per game during its first five-game win streak since 1999.
© Kevin P. Tucker

One step backward was all it took for the Lehigh men's lacrosse team to take its first big step forward under fifth-year coach Kevin Cassese.

A lopsided loss to Villanova in the second game of the season forced the Mountain Hawks to re-evaluate their approach and realize they potentially were headed down a familiar path toward yet another mediocre finish.

Thanks to a players-only meeting in which the Hawks began to hold each other accountable, they regrouped for what now has turned to a five-game win streak and 6-1 record with wins over three top 20 opponents. It’s Lehigh’s best start since 1969.

“We've had to be patient over the last four and a half years and kind of see this thing through fruition,” Cassese said of his tenure. “We knew we were very close. You look at our schedule the last few years and a lot of our losses were close games to highly-ranked teams. We just couldn't figure out how to take that next step and how to come up with that big win.

“I think that's what is showing now is that everyone involved in the program is understanding what it takes to be a winner.”

Lehigh, now ranked No. 11 going into Saturday's home game against Army, was 28-36 in Cassese's first four seasons, including a 7-9 finish last year when the Hawks ended the season in the Patriot League semifinals.

After returning the core of the 2011 lineup, Lehigh came into this season with expectations for quick improvement. The optimism suddenly faded with a devastating 17-7 loss to Villanova -- a team the Hawks traditionally match up well with -- in the home opener.

“We really got beaten up in that game,” Cassese said. “For us, we had to really take a step back because all along we were saying this year was going to be different. We were thinking that way and saying it, but obviously the actions speak louder than words. Our actions in game No. 2 showed us we were going backward instead of forward.”

Cassese and his coaching staff analyzed the loss over and over and came to a conclusion that it had nothing to do with lacrosse and everything to do with chemistry and commitment. Through team and individual meetings, the Hawks spent the days leading up to their next game focused on themselves, rather than preparing for Manhattan.

On Feb. 21, three days after the loss and four days before the Manhattan game, the seniors led a players-only meeting that served as the turning point.

“We just called each other out and were very real, very honest with one another,” four-year starter Roman Lao-Gosney said. “A lot of the attention was focused toward the captains, myself and my brother (fraternal twin and fellow four-year starter Cameron Lao-Gosney).

“The younger players felt we needed to step up. They felt [the senior leaders] were invisible in that Villanova game. The players needed more from us, and we really took that to heart. We heard things we needed to hear.”

The team hasn't been the same since. The Hawks bounced back with a 13-0 win over Manhattan before earning wins over ranked teams, Penn, UNC and Yale, with the help of a stellar help-oriented defense that during its five-game win streak has limited opponents to 4.2 goals per game.

“The younger players felt we needed to step up. They felt [the senior leaders] were invisible in that Villanova game. The players needed more from us, and we really took that to heart."

-- Lehigh co-captain Roman Lao-Gosney

Freshman goaltender Matt Poillon (5.91 goals against average, 60.2 save percentage) has won consecutive Patriot League goalie of the week honors. On Sunday against Yale, the defense didn’t allow a goal for a 21:29 stretch. Lehigh has also kept the ball away from opponents, with faceoff taker Ryan Snyder ranking 20th nationally in win percentage (56.5).

“I saw the change that first practice after the meeting,” said Roman Lao-Gosney, who has accounted for seven goals and three assists. “It was the most upbeat, fast-paced practice I've ever been a part of, and we've just become more accountable and not afraid to hash it out and be real with each other about what we need to do.”

Cassese said the Lao-Gosney twins and senior David DiMaria, who leads the team with 10 goals and 11 assists, have been catalysts to the run. However, it took a team effort to put it together.

“There's just a broader and deeper commitment to literally doing whatever it takes to make decisions with the team's best interests in mind,” said Cassese, who in February was named an assistant to Richie Meade for Team USA’s run at the gold medal in 2014. “That's a hard thing to do because it goes to players who don't play 60 minutes on game day, to players who maybe don't even play one minute on game day.

“It goes to all 47 members of our roster, and you can only put 10 on the field at once. It's getting 37 other men to realize they can be helpful in different ways than playing those minutes on game day.”

The fun is just beginning for the Hawks, though, as they open their conference schedule Saturday against Army with the ultimate goal of a Patriot League title in mind.

“I've put in a lot of work the last three years and don't have anything to show for it and still don't really,” Lao-Gosney said. “We still have a long way to go and a lot left to accomplish. I've known we could be good for three years because the talent and work level has been there, but we just haven't been able to put it together.

“It's awesome to see it come together finally, and now we just have to keep it going. I'm not going to leave Lehigh with nothing.”

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