May 1, 2013

Cinderella 2.0: Lehigh Makes it Back to NCAA Tournament

by Gary Lambrecht |

With a 5-4 record and after losses to Denver and Air Force early in the season, Lehigh's 14-man senior class took a hard look at itself and realized that they were the problem.

Lehigh senior midfielder and team captain Brian Hess admits that, like a good number of other Mountain Hawks, he had some growing up to do this spring.

Coming off a historic season in 2012, a year that saw Lehigh win 14 games, take its first Patriot League title and make its first trip to the NCAA tournament, the Hawks have had plenty to stare down in 2013 — starting with their high opinion of themselves.

Under fifth-year coach Kevin Cassese, Lehigh showed some soft spots early. Cassese wanted to test the Hawks by throwing them into the fire of the Pioneer Classic, a two-games-in-two-days exercise in the high altitude of Denver.

On Feb. 23 and 24, Lehigh's 2-0 start got a rude interruption. The Hawks surrendered a combined 33 goals in losses to Denver and Air Force. Over the next four weeks, the Hawks fixed their defense, only to be done in by their sloppiness and I-want-mine tendencies on offense in 6-4 losses to both Penn and UMass.

While Cassese and his staff went to work revamping the offense, the Lehigh players, starting with a 14-man senior class, took a hard look at its middling, 5-4 record and came to an unpleasant conclusion. They were the problem.

"We had a lot of preseason All-Americans, which is new around here. And a lot of guys were doing things for themselves, trying to get their points," Hess said. "I was absolutely one of those guys.

"We sat in a team meeting [in late March] and kind of went around the circle and admitted we were being selfish, instead of worrying about our roles. Last year was kind of a magical season. Nothing much went wrong. It was unbelievable and unexpected, and it seemed a lot easier. This year we had these huge expectations. We had an 'X' on our backs, and we struggled with that."

Seven weeks and seven consecutive victories later — a stretch during which Lehigh has averaged 12 goals while giving up 6.6 — the evidence is in.

Problems solved. Just ask Colgate and Bucknell, who each got flattened last weekend in Bethlehem, Pa., in a Patriot League tournament owned by the top-seeded, host Hawks.

Lehigh (12-4) completed its run of the PL table in 2013 by punching out the Raiders and Bison by a combined score of 26-12 to win its second straight league crown and grab another automatic qualifier for the NCAAs. A year after losing a 10-9 heartbreaker to eventual finalist Maryland in the first round, the Hawks looked like a mature team that means serious business in the big tournament.

With those losses on its resume, Lehigh, behind tournament MVP David DiMaria's 10 points and two stellar defensive efforts led by two-time PL goalie of the year Matt Poillon, left nothing to chance against Colgate or Bucknell. The Hawks decided they had little room to depend on getting an at-large bid, and they threw haymakers in the second half of each game to emphasize the point.

"The finality of it all was evident. It showed up in our practices and meetings with those seniors. They took the team over," Cassese said. "Our guys played desperate ball, as if our season was on the line. In every huddle, there was no panic, no wide eyes. That's the sign of a team coming of age. It was actually emotional for me. That's my first real recruiting class. Those are my boys."

"We all knew it was a win-or-go-home kind of scenario. It was kind of an unspoken truth, especially among the seniors. That's a huge reason we played as hungry as we did," said DiMaria, who somehow was relegated to second-team, All-Patriot League status, despite leading the league in points (68) and finishing with team-highs in goals (31) and assists (37).

DiMaria, who along with senior Dante Fantoni (26g, 20a) and sophomore Dan Taylor (29, 21), forms one of the more potent attacks in the game, echoed Hess' sentiments regarding the Hawks' self-assessment.

Lehigh's recovery went deeper than the adjustments made by the coaching staff, which took pressure off of the attack by putting finishers such as midfielder Patrick Corbett (21g) and dodgers such as senior middie Alex Drake and sharpshooters such senior middie Kyle Stiefel (16g) in better positions to excel at their roles.

It went further than tightening up a superb interior defense led by senior Mike Noone's bruising crease presence and the eye-catching cover skills of elastic freshman Tripp Telesco, who has moved smoothly back and forth between close defense and long-stick midfield. He held Colgate's Peter Baum and Bucknell's David Dickson to a combined three assists last weekend.

The way DiMaria sees it, the Hawks are a dangerous team at the perfect time, because they used their wealth of experience to rid themselves of any pretense, after Denver, Air Force, Penn and UMass had chopped them down to size.

"Coach did a great job of setting up those challenges. Denver and Air Force gave us the business. We were humbled," DiMaria said. "After that UMass loss [the team's last one on March 20], we really looked inside and found our identity, even with a ton of big egos in our senior class. Now, we're playing the best brand of lacrosse we can play. I think we're going to be a tough out."

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