With the sixth-ranked Lehigh football team set to play in the FCS Playoffs this Saturday at #8/9 Towson, check out this feature story about Mountain Hawks’ two-sport athlete TaShan Mitchell.
By: Justin Lafleur, Lehigh Sports Media Relations
Attending a rigorous academic institution like Lehigh is challenging enough. Student-athletes are expected to manage a hectic sports schedule while not missing a beat in the classroom. Freshman two-sport athlete TaShan Mitchell faces that challenge, times two.
Not only is Mitchell a linebacker for the Mountain Hawks’ two-time defending Patriot League Champion football team, but he is also a defenseman on the men’s lacrosse squad. Very rarely do you see a two-sport athlete, never mind in such demanding sports like football and lacrosse. It takes a special breed to be able to manage both, but indications are Mitchell is very capable.
“It takes a mature kid, a first-class kid in every aspect of life to handle two physically and mentally demanding sports,” said Smith Family Lacrosse Coach Kevin Cassese. “Football and lacrosse demand a lot of brain power. But in the end, the number one thing is he’s still a student.”
Deep into football season, Mitchell has all his focus and attention on helping the Mountain Hawks do damage in the FCS Playoffs. Lehigh has already won its second-straight Patriot League Championship, finishing with a 10-1 record and a No. 6 national ranking.
Once football is over, Mitchell will begin to shift his attention to the lacrosse season this spring. His first task has been acclimating to the university and the football team.
“At first, I was pretty nervous,” said Mitchell. “But a couple weeks into practice, I really got settled in. Everybody here was ‘the man’ at their high school, so the competition is a lot higher. Once you settle down and get used to the level of play, you can take advantage of your skills and show people what you can do.”
Mitchell quickly earned a spot on the travel roster for Lehigh’s second road game of the season at Princeton. He got into his first action at Bucknell, while also playing at Fordham and Colgate. Mitchell had an obvious transition to college football, but once he got acclimated, his talents came to the surface.
“TaShan did a nice job in camp,” said head football coach Andy Coen. “He’s really done a super job for us. I thought he was talented, but I didn’t know he’d be as explosive as he is. He has a really good future here with football.”
One of the biggest reasons for Mitchell’s early success is a tremendous work ethic. Hard work on the scout team hasn’t been unnoticed.
“He’s a great kid, working hard every day,” said Coen. “We’ve been able to integrate him into some special teams because of what he’s shown on the scout team.”
“I try to go as hard as I can on the scout team and stand out against our starters because if you can stand out against them, it shows you’re doing something right,” said Mitchell.
For the longest time, Mitchell thought he’d be only playing football at the collegiate level. A conversation with Coach Cassese in May of 2010 sparked his interest in Lehigh and ultimately, the possibility of playing two sports.
“The first time I saw TaShan was at a recruiting event in Ohio. It was at Western Reserve Academy where he was a high school junior,” said Cassese. “He was the best athlete on the field; he was running around, causing havoc in the middle of the field. You’d see a flash going sideline to sideline and restraining line to restraining line, and it was TaShan every time. He was hard to miss.”
“Coach Cassese talked to me about playing lacrosse, but I was set on playing football and hadn’t even thought about playing lacrosse in college,” said Mitchell. “When [Coach Cassese] told me I had a chance to play Division I, that’s when I started to think about it. But the first thing I told him was I wanted to play football; that was my main goal.”
From there, Cassese got in touch with Coen along with defensive coordinator Dave Kotulski to see if they had an interest in Mitchell.
“We’re always looking for a good football player,” said Coen. “That’s what TaShan was, as well as being an outstanding lacrosse athlete. He came on campus here in the spring; I was unavailable to meet with him, but Coach Kotulski met with him and shared that if he decided to come to Lehigh, we’d certainly give him the opportunity to join the football program. Initially I wasn’t sure if we’d be able to bring him into training camp because we’re limited with numbers, but fortunately we were.”
In the end, the choice was easy. Lehigh stood out in all realms - football, lacrosse and most importantly, academics.
“The school is really great in itself, so the opportunity to play two sports I love and go to a great academic school was something I couldn’t resist,” said Mitchell.
Mitchell has seen a wide variety of teams and skill levels, just from his experience at two different high schools. He was at Western Reserve Academy in Ohio for three years before moving on to Christian Brothers High School in Memphis, Tenn. Mitchell grew up in Ohio before his parents moved to Tennessee his freshman year. He decided to stay on his own at his boarding school, but after his junior year, he decided to move back with his parents in Tennessee.
“I missed the family,” said Mitchell. “Football is a lot bigger sport down in Tennessee. Competition was better and it helped a lot with recruiting. And for lacrosse, it was a completely different experience as well; lacrosse up north is huge, but it’s just starting to grow down south.”
Seeing different places and levels of play can only help Mitchell as he fully transitions into two sports at the collegiate level. One thing is for sure: both Coach Coen and Cassese think he has tremendous potential in each sport.
“I think he can be an outstanding football player here and I’m sure Kevin feels the same way with lacrosse,” said Coen. “It’ll come down to how committed he can be to one or either of the sports. He could be very good at both, which would be great. I’m pulling for him; he has our blessing to pursue [his goals].”
“TaShan’s athleticism is so impressive that I feel like as long as he can pick up the concepts relatively quickly - which we’ll over simply for him - he’ll be the type of athlete who will be tough to keep off the field,” said Cassese. “The football coaches are figuring that out now. He’s too athletic of a kid and works too hard to not make an impact somewhere.”
For now, Mitchell is focused on football while continuing to manage his academic workload. Playing two sports is challenging, but at the same time, could be a blessing in disguise.
“While you’re in season, the grades for the team are always higher than when you’re out of season,” said Mitchell. “There’s that structure of being in a routine: practice, working out, going to the library, study hall, doing your work then going to sleep. It makes it easier when you’re in that routine; when you have more free time, it’s easier to procrastinate. Being in-season twice, I figure it helps more than hurts, just having that constant structure.”
Mitchell’s goals for the rest of the football season are simple. Get better every day.
“As a group, we all have big expectations,” said Mitchell. “For me personally, I want to continue getting on more and more special teams so I can show myself for the future.”
As for lacrosse, Mitchell has met and kept in touch with a number of the players, but that’s the extent of his lacrosse involvement this fall. He’ll come into preseason in January essentially starting from square one. However, Cassese isn’t worried.
“I’m excited to get him with us,” said Cassese. “He’s here at Lehigh and assimilated into the Lehigh culture, but it’s still a new team for him. Just coming into a new environment that’s different from the football team is certainly a challenge, but should be fun for him to step outside the football box and into lacrosse.”
“My goal personally is to be able to jump in, not be too far behind the guys and be able to catch up with conditioning, stick skills and things like that,” said Mitchell. “I haven’t played for as long as a lot of the other guys have; I started my freshman year [of high school]. I’m hoping my athletic ability can help me keep up with them until that happens.”