Season Preview: Mountain Hawks all about depth heading into spring campaign
BETHLEHEM, Pennsylvania – It’s tough to win a Patriot League championship. To do this, all the right parts have to fit together. It is even more difficult to win two Patriot League Championships in a row.
The Lehigh Men’s Soccer Team will try this in spring 2021. Although the Mountain Hawks haven’t seen game action for 472 days, they are the team of choice in the league to repeat and claim the fourth league title in program history.
Lehigh was spectacular in 2019, scoring a total of 13-5-3 with a 6-0-3 record in the Patriot League and an unbeaten home record at the Ulrich Sports Complex at 7-0-3, including a title win at the top of 1,705 fans against Lafayette.
The difference this season is that the schedule is in the spring, as opposed to the usual fall colors on South Mountain. In addition, fan cutouts are currently decorating the Ulrich grandstand instead of screaming fans, family and friends. Nonetheless, football is played and the Mountain Hawks are trying to get back on the squad to get the job done despite the long layoff.
“I don’t think anyone has managed to stay in shape in Liga I during that time because you can only do that by playing games,” said head coach Dean Koski in his 29th season. “The fact that our team hasn’t had a proper game since November 2019, they haven’t had Spring 2020, they haven’t played in the Summer League, and they have 32 players who haven’t played a full-length game in a year until they play play, no one will get there.
“Our job is to manage our players from now on so that they can give their best in the course of a game. Whether 40 minutes or 20 minutes, we just have to get the best out of them.”
Starting in goal, Lehigh has to do without long-time goalkeeper Will Smith for the first time after he was named Patriot League Goalkeeper of the Year and Patriot League Tournament MVP in 2019. Two familiar faces return between the pipes in Noah Sutherland and Andrew Fishman, while two new faces are added with the newcomers Blake Koski and Jesse Ryan. Of the four, there are zero games with college experience, but coach Koski is confident in this group.
“We are fortunate to have four really solid goalkeepers in our program,” said Koski. “I think Noah did a great job recovering from his injuries and not being able to play football for over a year. Coming back and being in the shape he was in was really impressive and exciting to see, so it will start in our opener, we are looking forward to it and it deserves it.
“Right behind him is Blake who has shown some promise and potential and they are pushing each other in a very good way. I think they are growing and improving. Jesse and Fish will be our emergency watchdogs, but they are both coming.” get out there and train really hard and who knows when we need them and they have to be ready to go. “
The Mountain Hawks’ backline is still deep with many experienced players but the heart and soul of the defense, Zarin Tuten, is gone and has left the team. Smith and Tuten were the main reasons Lehigh ruled out 19 opponents between 2018 and 2019. Senior Tyler Dressman and preseason All-Patriot League selection, Nick Jennings, have returned. The Mountain Hawks return regularly on the defensive with Euan Forrest and Andrew White in their sophomore years, as well as junior Dawson Berger, who started behind in Lehigh’s NCAA tournament match against Pitt.
“We have a lot of moving parts on our backs,” said Koski. “Some of those decisions are based on the guys having overcome injuries. We are certainly not 100 percent there, but I like what we saw with Tyler who will likely anchor us at the center. Euan and newcomer Hassane Diakho really have us well done. White, Dominic Flowers, Thatcher Cooper and Berger and Jonathan Blaine were all in the mix and when Nick is back he will be an important factor for us.
“We were happy with all the full-backs, we have a really good depth there. I don’t expect a lot of full-backs to play 90 minutes, but we have guys on the bench who can jump in and play straight away.”
Looking towards the middle, Senior Stevo Bednarsky comes into the season fit and ready to prove why he was named Midfielder of the Year in the Preseason Patriot League that season. He was honored in 2019 and was named to both the First Team All-Patriot League and the Second Team All-Atlantic Region selection by the United Soccer Coaches. Bednarsky took on the program as captain for the second year running this season, scoring two goals and an assist for five points, including a game-winning goal, in his junior season. Trevor Koski, the 2019 All-Patriot League second team, is back as a midfield option, as is Natan Rosen in his sophomore year.
“Stevo will always be one of the best players in the league,” said Koski. “He will definitely anchor us in midfield this year. He had a very good spring preparation for us and with him in the middle of the park and if Trevor can play they will have the most experience.”
“But we have Bratislav who is playing very well for us right now, as well as Michael Tahiru and Natan. We feel that we have some really good answers in the middle and on the bench. We are really happy with what” these Group does so far. “
Lehigh has many scoring chances in the forward position in the spring of 2021, of course led by the reigning Offensive Player of the Year of the Patriot League and the All-American Josh Luchini, who is entering his junior year. Luchini scored eleven goals with two assists in 2019, including five winning the game. He has scored 17 goals, six assists and 40 points in two seasons so far. Luchini aside, Jack Sarkos is back on the hunt for opportunities, as is junior Michael Tahiru, who scored the decisive goal in Lehigh’s 1-0 Patriot League title win against Lafayette. Senior Bratislav Petkovic had a strong spring, as did junior Valentine Perevalov.
“We probably have more depth in the front position than we have had in a long time,” said Koski. “Josh will definitely make the headlines and our expectations of him will never change, but we have a lot of players like Jack, Natan and Michael who can also play at the top. We believe we have the guys who can give us some depth ”where we don’t have to put all the weight and burden on Josh.
“I expect we’ll be playing more than Josh this season. We’ll see, but we’re happy with what we’ve seen from our attacking players so far.”
As with any new team, the freshman class will again be the interesting story. Seven players will call Lehigh their home for the first time in spring 2021 and all of them have different skills and positions. As mentioned earlier, Koski and Ryan are the Mountain Hawks’ new goalkeepers. With Austin Recinos and Austen Carranza, Lehigh has two striker / midfield combination players, while Hassane Diakho, Nolan Jetter and Michael Laret secure the midfield / defense position groups.
“This was our toughest year to judge and evaluate our freshmen because we didn’t really have the luxury of a preseason and a very shortened fall season,” said Koski. “But we didn’t have time beforehand. So our feeling for the newbie has really evolved over the past four weeks. It is a short time to be able to evaluate them effectively.
“But they were exactly what we expected when we recruited them. Some are more advanced than others, some surprised us and no one disappointed us. They are a really good group and some of them will help us this year Whether at the beginning or off the bench. The freshman class really gives us quality that we will need, especially if we have some injuries. You will have that during this stretch and so we will use it to the best of our ability when we do think they are ready, and if not, that’s fine, they have time. “
In a new format for the Patriot League Tournament due to fewer games and fewer opportunities to play against each other, only four teams will qualify for the postseason in spring 2021 with two semi-finals and one championship. The Mountain Hawks, selected first in the preseason poll, were placed in a tough division in the south along with enemies Loyola, Navy, American and Bucknell. From this division group, from the five who qualified for the Patriot League tournament in 2019.
“Our instinct as coaching staff this season is to treat every game like a tournament game,” said Koski. “In a year like this, you can’t save either energy or players. When we start our regular season we usually start the year with five or six non-league games that you can add to your league list.We fly out of the train station at 100 mph, every game counts, every minute counts.
“Conditioning our boys and preparing them for a playoff mentality from the first game will be our main goal. I think we’re close. I think they understand and understand that, but you can’t look ahead and you can’t take a breather because it’s about scoring as many points as possible in order to be one of the four remaining teams in the end. “
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