BETHLEHEM, Pa. – The Lehigh men’s soccer team is halfway through the schedule of its 100th season as a varsity sport. The Mountain Hawks’ next opponent, Lafayette, was the only team Lehigh faced in its inaugural season of 1913. The Leopards’ 2-0 victory marked the beginning of a rivalry that has been played 108 times and at least once every season from 1913-2011, except for 1919 and 1920.
Lehigh played Lafayette three times in 1914, the only three games on its schedule. The Brown and White lost twice and tied once, and the squad had to wait until the following season to get its first ever win. In 1915, Lehigh defeated Haverford 5-1 to win the first game in program history.
Two games later, Lehigh avenged an earlier loss to Lafayette that season with a 3-1 triumph. The Brown and White had their first of 34 winning seasons that year, finishing with a 4-2-1 record.
The 109th edition of the Lehigh-Lafayette men’s soccer rivalry will be played Saturday night at the Ulrich Sports Complex. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. in what will be each team’s third Patriot League game. Lehigh sits at 0-2 in the league and will be looking for its first league win of the 2012 season to jumpstart a playoff push while Lafayette holds a 1-1 league record.
This year, the Mountain Hawks will come into their match with the rival Leopards off a 5-0 loss at Colgate this past weekend and are hoping to rebound for a key Patriot League victory. Lehigh holds a 54-44-10 advantage in the all-time series over Lafayette as the two teams have split the past two encounters.
"I think it’s really important that we focus on what we need to do to try and find three points," said head coach Dean Koski. "We need to do the little things well, like managing Lafayette’s attack and finding ways to neutralize what they do well offensively. On the other side, we need to take advantage of any chinks in their armor, and they don’t have many."
Sophomore Brian Suchoski leads the 2012 Mountain Hawks with four points via two goals, followed by senior Matt Weaver with two points after his dramatic game-winning goal against Penn State earlier in the year. Juniors James Meyerkord and Ben Wysocki along with freshman Dilan Casanovas Mack have each recorded an assist thus far. On defense, Ciaran Nugent has played eight games in net for the Mountain Hawks, making 33 saves and posting a .707 save percentage, while senior Taylor Sulmonetti has started two games, making 13 saves and registering a 0.55 goals against average.
Koski’s Mountain Hawks will have to focus on the game at-hand but he understands the background and external implications that make up this epic rivalry.
"I think appreciating the rivalry and the emotion that goes with it is a part of getting the three points," said Koski. "Even though it’s a soccer game once you put that ball down, there is so much more than a soccer game going on out there. There are a lot of people watching that care about this game and we need to carry some of that with us."
The Leopards are reeling from a 1-0 overtime loss to Rider on Tuesday as the Broncs picked up their first victory of the season. After a scoreless draw through 90 minutes, Rider converted on a penalty kick nine minutes into the extra session for the dramatic victory. The Leopards out-shot the Broncs on the night, 24-8, six of which were on-goal but they were unable to find the back of the net.
Junior Alec Golini leads the Lafayette attack with five goals and an assist for a team-best 11 points. Seniors Blake Fink and Sean Peckham, along with sophomore Chandler Fraser-Pauls have each recorded five points to aid the Leopards’ offense. On defense, junior Nathan McDonald has started eight games in goal, making 26 saves for a .684 save percentage. Sophomore Alexander Leavy has started three games in net for the Leopards, making 18 saves, posting a 0.93 goals against average and a .857 save percentage.
As the home team has taken the last three meetings between the two institutions, Koski understands that home field advantage in the Patriot League is a valuable tool that his squad will look to take advantage of this weekend.
"I think that any time you are hosting in the league it gives you an advantage," said Koski. "We want to do anything we can to take advantage of that."
Koski has led the Mountain Hawks to 14 of those previously mentioned 34 winning seasons as he is in the midst of his 21st year as head coach of the Mountain Hawks. Koski has compiled 178 wins during his tenure and led Lehigh to its 500th win as a program on September 7, 2010, a 3-2 victory over Princeton.
His wins total 100 more than any other Lehigh coach as Billy Christian is second with 78 wins from 1952-1967.
Koski has led Lehigh to 13 Patriot League tournament berths and three NCAA tournament trips, winning three Patriot League Coach of the Year awards in the process. He has also coached 38 All-Patriot League First Team players, 33 Second Team players and three All-Americans.
"There have only been 15 coaches total in 100 years and it’s a tremendous honor for me to be on that list with some legends," Koski said. "It’s a privilege to be a part of that history."
Koski’s first ever recruiting class at Lehigh was the graduating class of 1996, which included current Lehigh Associate Head Coach Michael Benn. Benn played at Lehigh from 1992-95 and spent three years with the team as a graduate assistant before leaving to take an assistant coaching position and later the interim head coach position at East Carolina.
In 2005, Benn returned to Lehigh to become the soccer program’s first ever full-time assistant. The next year, he was promoted to Associate Head Coach.
"I believe in this place, its mission and how it treats its student-athletes," Benn said. "I believe in coach Koski and how he runs his program and where he hopes to take this program."
"I love this place," Benn continued. "It’s where I became a man and I wanted to give back. I’m blessed to be able to come to work everyday and contribute to the tradition and history of this program. After my wife and kids, it’s what means the most to me in this world."
Benn feels that one of the most special aspects of the soccer program’s history is the players and staff that have been involved in it over the past two decades.
"I’ve seen a lot of changes in the program since my freshman year of 1992," he said. "One thing that has stayed very consistent is the quality of the people in this program."
One of Lehigh’s most notable alumni, Evan Bruno ’03, was a three-time First Team All-Patriot League selection, a 2000 third-team All American and a member of Lehigh’s Patriot League Championship team the same season. Despite having played his final game for Lehigh ten years ago, Bruno still holds the same pride in the program as Lehigh’s current players and coaching staff do.
"Clearly Lehigh is steeped in tradition and so to be a part of something that has meant so much to so many people for so long, is something that I am very proud of," Bruno said. "If you are doing anything for 100 years, clearly you are doing something right."
Bruno also explained that his experiences as a student-athlete at Lehigh have made him a lifelong fan and supporter of the soccer program.
"Lehigh was a very special place for me and mostly because of soccer," he explained. "I met a lot of my best friends and I experienced some life lessons that I will always take with me. I follow them [the soccer team] because those experiences have made me a fan. I still have a very strong connection to the coaching staff and that helps, but ultimately I really want the team to succeed and do well."
The team Bruno and his teammates beat in the 2000 Patriot League Championship game was Lehigh’s longest standing rival, Lafayette. Lehigh’s 108 matches against the Leopards are 25 more than Lehigh has had against any other team.
Bruno explained the rivalry between the two schools and teams:
"It’s special because it transcends sport," Bruno said. "It’s not a ‘soccer rivalry.’ It’s a rivalry across all walks of life. So when you were playing against them you were representing everyone at Lehigh including alumni. The ultimate thrill was winning that championship against them, at their place, and celebrating on their field. Having them watch that made it just a little bit sweeter. I consider myself extremely lucky to have experienced the thrill of winning a Patriot League Championship with my teammates and friends. It was a memory I will never forget."
As a player and a coach, Benn has experienced 15 years of Lehigh-Lafayette matches and cherishes the rivalry.
"To have such a great rival over 100 years, it’s very exciting," he said. "Some of my most vivid memories are Lehigh vs. Lafayette games."
After coaching Lehigh in 24 matches against Lafayette, Koski had also developed an appreciation for the competitiveness between the two schools.
"It’s an amazing concept that soccer was being played 100 years ago at the college level and even more amazing to see that we played only one game in 1913 and it was against Lafayette," Koski said. "It’s fitting to celebrate our 100th season with a game against Lafayette."
The last three Lehigh-Lafayette matches have all ended in 1-0 scores in favor of the home side. None of the last nine meetings have resulted in a two-goal win or more for either side, as all the games have been close and, as always, very physical and fiercely competitive.
Tomorrow night's game will be a "Summit Series" event which will include a $5 admission charge, but I.D. card holders (students and faculty/staff) will remain free of charge. You can order tickets in advance by follow the Lehigh University Online Ticket Office link.
After Saturday’s match with the Leopards, the Mountain Hawks will travel to Washington, D.C. on Tuesday October 9 for a non-league game against the Georgetown Hoyas at 3 p.m.