Phillylacrosse.com, Posted 12/24/16
By Justin Lafleur, Lehigh Sports Communications
There are many commonalities between the walk-ons of Lehigh men’s lacrosse.
These walk-ons came to Lehigh for its academics, first and foremost. They also loved the game enough to try out, knowing that if they made the team, game action would likely be limited – especially at first. That didn’t stop them from pursuing the game they love.
“As soon as I decided to come to Lehigh, I knew I wanted to try out,” said sophomore goaltender Chris Kiernan. “I loved playing lacrosse in high school, and playing in college was a dream of mine. I was recruited by some other schools, but I knew I wanted to go to Lehigh and be a part of this storied lacrosse program.”
Kiernan has done more than just make the team. He earned the nod as starting goaltender midway through last season.
Kiernan may be the Mountain Hawks’ most improbable story, from trying out to starting in the matter of months, but the Mountain Hawks have featured a number of key walk-ons over the years, including five on the 2017 team: senior Donny Stires and sophomores Kiernan, Ralph Shields (Southern Lehigh), William Gunn and Kevin Tsao (Moorestown). They all have similar stories.
“As a senior in high school, I spoke with my coach about the possibility of playing college lacrosse and he suggested a few schools that I could speak with,” said Shields. “At that point, I had already applied to Lehigh and was fairly certain I would attend if I got accepted. My coach told me it would be a challenge to walk on to a Division I team and would require a lot of work. It was worth a shot, so I put in a ton of work leading up to the tryout.”
Kiernan and Shields turned heads in their tryouts, as did Stires, a goaltender who this fall was named one of three captains for the upcoming 2017 season.
“The coaches had all the walk-ons try out as a group one afternoon, then invited a few of us to participate in the evaluation games that weekend so they could take a better look at us,” he said. “The coaches were all very helpful during the tryout. I realized I had to elevate my game in order to keep up.”
Once the walk-ons officially made the team, their first responsibility was on the scout team. It’s an important job, helping prepare their teammates for the challenges they’ll face in games. Even though it may not be glamorous, the scout team can make a significant impact in the team’s success.
While doing the best they can on the scout team, walk-ons also want to turn heads themselves. If they play well in practice, they will be noticed.
“Once a walk-on makes the team, he is treated like every other player on the roster,” said Cassese. “They have the opportunity to make gains, show improvement and climb up the depth chart like every other player on the roster. One thing I’ve noticed about walk-ons over the years is they bring a chip on their shoulders and they play and train every day as if they have something to prove. For them, it’s a survival mechanism. It’s incredibly refreshing and it’s actually the mentality I want all of our players to have.”
Kiernan emerged as the team’s starting goaltender due in large part to that chip on his shoulder. His success in practice led to Cassese giving him a chance at Army West Point, which led to his first-career start at Lafayette.
“I take pride in being seen by the coaches as someone who consistently gives my best effort in everything I do,” said Kiernan.
Stires has been noticed in multiple ways. He has improved his play, and he’s been a role model to younger student-athletes. His role has typically been as goalie of the scout team defense.
“I remember being a freshman and realizing that I was playing against some of the best players in the country every day, and that realization ultimately elevated my play,” said Stires. “It has been shown time and again that when the scout team has a good week in practice, the starters will also play better during the game. It’s imperative that the scout team gives the starters the best look they possibly can so they’re ready for anything come gameday.”
For all the similarities between walk-ons, a strong work ethic is at the core. These young men wouldn’t have had the courage to even try out, never mind make the team, without a superior work ethic.
“I take pride in my work ethic,” said Shields. “I think I’ve progressed tremendously as a player as well as a person since joining the team, thanks to those around me. I aspire to motivate others to work hard and succeed as well.”
One reason for the success of walk-ons is the culture within the Lehigh men’s lacrosse program. From the coaches on downward, everyone is put in the best position to succeed and no matter who you are, whether you’re a five-star recruit or a walk-on, if you work hard and play well, you will be rewarded.
“I am a big believer that there’s more than one way to become a Lehigh Lacrosse man,” said Cassese. “Just because you’re an Inside Lacrosse Top 100 recruit doesn’t automatically give you that title. That said, just showing up at the walk-on tryout doesn’t give you that title, either. No matter how the opportunity has been presented, you have to earn it, every single day. And, if you do it consistently and at a high level, you’ll reap the benefits.”
Despite a pretty welcoming atmosphere, everyone needs to prove themselves. Respect isn’t given; it’s earned.
“Having to earn the respect of my teammates is a huge motivator,” said Shields. “Most of the team was much stronger and more talented than me, but it was also a challenge to earn the respect of the other players. It was more encouraging than anything else because it made me work much harder than I ever have before.”
That hard work has paid off in different ways for everyone. The walk-ons embrace what they do well and do it to the best of their abilities. A perfect example is Stires, who may not see a lot of game action, but has made a strong impact on the program.
“I have always tried to be responsible, both on and off the field, and take leadership when necessary,” he said. “Being elected as a captain of the team was an awesome feeling, knowing that your teammates trust and respect you enough to lead the team.”
Roles can change for walk-ons, as they can for all student-athletes.
“As I started to move up the depth chart, my impact changed,” said Kiernan. “As a goalie, it’s important to keep your composure while both playing defense and clearing the ball. I think in general, I kept my composure last season, which helped the team in some tight games. As I’ve gained confidence from my teammates due to my performance in the spring and this fall, I have tried to become more of a vocal leader.”
Historically, Lehigh walk-ons have emerged to do great things. Beyond Kiernan earning the starting goaltender spot and Stires being named a team captain, Kyle Stiefel ’13 was a man-up specialist who scored 12 goals during the Mountain Hawks’ 2012 Patriot League Championship season, including three in the NCAA Tournament against Maryland. Meanwhile, goaltender Griffin Farha ’13 played in eight games as a sophomore, starting four with a strong 55.1 save percentage. Several others have made an impact as well.
The consistent theme for each walk-on is the drive to succeed and contribute in the best way possible. But, in order to contribute, they first need to be given the opportunity.
“In our sport, recruiting is not an exact science,” said Cassese. “Some really talented players get passed over in the recruiting process. Lacrosse is the fastest growing high school sport in America, and arguably the slowest growing Division I sport in America, so there are many more good players than admissions spots at the top lacrosse schools.
“The walk-on talent pool should be getting stronger and stronger every year,” he continued. “I believe we would be foolish not to consider that pool of viable candidates just because they didn’t show up on our radar in the general recruiting timeline. I’m not saying that all of these walk-ons will end up being All-Americans, but the right walk-on could have a very positive influence on the team.”
Stires, and all the walk-ons, are proof that if you love something and put time into it, anything is possible.
“Coach Cassese has a saying that when it boils down to it, there are three aspects of college life – athletic, academic and social,” said Kiernan. “While you can be involved in all of them, you can only be great at two. To someone thinking about trying out, I would make sure that you are prepared for the commitment, both physically and mentally, that college academics and athletics require of you. Playing Division I lacrosse is great fun, but it’s certainly a challenge.
“However, if you are deeply committed to becoming a better man and a better player, the challenge is worth it.”