Phillylacrosse.com, Posted 2/7/20
From Press Release
For two consecutive years, the Lehigh men’s lacrosse team came so close to taking home a Patriot League Championship, but fell a little short.
Last season, the Mountain Hawks could taste it, but leading 6-4 late in the third quarter, Army came storming back for an 11-7 win.
After graduating a large and decorated senior class, the 2020 Mountain Hawks will have significant changes, but are as focused and motivated as ever to get back to their third straight Patriot League Championship Game and take home the program’s first title since 2013.
Last season, Lehigh suffered through a number of injuries, which hurt in the moment, but have helped set the Mountain Hawks up for success this year. Senior Andrew Pettit (Tower Hill-DE) suffered a season-ending injury last preseason, but is back in 2020 for a fifth year. Due to Pettit’s injury, young players like Tommy Schelling were forced into big minutes and showed strong development during their freshman campaigns. On the other side of the field, freshmen defensemen like Michael Hagenberger and Patrick McIlory were forced into starting roles after Eddie Bouhall’s season-ending injury, helping prepare them for even larger roles as sophomores.
Pettit is the unquestioned leader of what should be a young Lehigh attack. A three-time captain, he returns after posting 46 goals and 20 assists as a junior in 2018, one year after tallying 35 goals and 11 assists in 2017.
“Andrew is someone we’re going to lean on heavily,” said Lehigh head coach Kevin Cassese. “Having him back at full-go is huge. Pettit is a field general, quarterback, great leader and someone who’s going to be the oldest and most mature guy at that end of the field. His skills are undeniable. He’s a great shooter, a great feeder, an unbelievably skilled and smart player.”
Two other returning players, who saw time at both attack and midfield as freshmen, are sophomores Schelling (17 goals, 13 assists) and Cole Kirst (nine goals, three assists). Kirst has impressed in tryouts, and practices, with the United States Under-19 team over the summer, fall and winter.
Like at attack, midfield should see plenty of young players, but with seniors leading the way. Seniors in the mix for the Mountain Hawks are returning All-Patriot League honoree Andrew Eichelberger, Ryan Klose and Crew Cintron.
Last season, Eichelberger was named All-Patriot League for the first time in his career after recording 18 goals and three assists. Klose finished the year with 13 goals and an assist, including six man-up goals. Cintron scored a big first-quarter goal in last year’s Patriot League Semifinals and finished the season with six goals and five assists.
Meanwhile, the Mountain Hawks’ “specialist” unit of faceoff and defensive midfield was ranked second in the nation in Inside Lacrosse’s Face-Off Unit. That’s no surprise, as Lehigh’s top players at all three spots (Christian McHugh at SSDM, Teddy Leggett at LSM and Conor Gaffney, Lenape-NJ, at FO) are all All-Patriot League honorees.
“We’re very deep here,” said Cassese. “We feel great about the middle of the field.”
McHugh’s impact goes far beyond his numbers (12 groundballs, six caused turnovers, three goals and two assists). Two other seniors are at the position in Erik DiGirolamo (Parkland) and Parker Kent.
“Those guys have been outstanding so far,” said Cassese.
The defensive midfielders will play an important role on the faceoff wings for a pair of potentially elite faceoff specialists in Gaffney and sophomore Mike Sisselberger (Southern Lehigh). Gaffney has already proven himself, finishing last season fourth in the nation in faceoff percentage (69.7 percent) and breaking countless school and Patriot League faceoff and groundball records. Sisselberger was ranked as the No. 1 incoming faceoff specialist by Inside Lacrosse last year, which could potentially create a dynamic 1-2 punch.
“The faceoff position is obviously one we feel really good about,” said Cassese. “Conor is a returning All-American. He’s taken so many faceoff reps for us and is arguably the best in program history. We’re excited we get one more year with him, and to complement him with Mikey Sisselberger. That’s a two-headed monster we’re really excited about.”
Close defense brings the most question marks in terms of experience, but the Mountain Hawks are confident they have plenty of strong options. Lehigh lost all three starting defensemen to graduation, but a number of poles saw valuable action to set them up in a good spot heading into 2020.
“The close defense is still up in the air as far as who’s going to be out there, but I also think there’s depth,” said Cassese. “We’re not just going to play four poles. They realize there’s no Craig Chick, there’s no Eddie Bouhall. It’s helping them understand that in order for us to be a great defense, they need to rely on each other and they need to have great chemistry.
“That has shown itself throughout the fall and early preseason,” Cassese continued. “They understand that, believe in that and are really working hard to keep themselves in tune with each other so they can put a great product on the field.”
The last line of defense for the Mountain Hawks will be two-year starting goaltender, junior James Spence (Springfield-Delco). Following a solid freshman campaign, he took his game to another level in 2019 (9.55 goals against average, 53.9 save percentage) and the hope/expectation is he only continues to improve in 2020.
“We’re excited for James’ junior season,” said Cassese. “I feel like this could be a breakout year for him. He had a great fall. He made around 13 saves in three quarters against Syracuse in the fall. His development has been incredible. All the goaltenders have really done really well with new goalie coach Jack Deragon. They’ve taken to coaching and I feel like our goalie play overall has been elevated.”
The Mountain Hawks have featured a number of talented teams over the years, but this group has the chance to be the deepest.
“This might be the deepest team we’ve ever had,” said Cassese. “I’m excited about that because it’s not something we can say often. Typically, we have a good first group. Our starting group is good, then there’s a drop-off, but I feel like it’s different this year.
“The biggest challenges we’ve had from a coaching staff perspective is trying to figure out the best combinations and how to get all these guys into game action so we can evaluate them, allow them to play and have success,” Cassese continued. “It’s a good problem to have. We’re still working through all that, but the fact of the matter is we do have a lot of guys who can bring something to the table.”
The program’s overlaying mission remains the same, winning a Patriot League Championship. Ranked top 20 in every major preseason poll, while also garnering two first-place votes in the Patriot League preseason poll, the pieces are in place for a special 2020 season.
But Cassese and the Mountain Hawks know they need to win the day to ultimately accomplish their overarching mission.
“We’ve found if we look too far ahead at our big goal of a championship, then we lose sight of what’s going on right in front of us,” said Cassese. “We need to have a 1-0 game mentality, focus on the first game, then the next one, then the next one and not get too far ahead of ourselves.”
It all begins on Saturday, Feb. 8 when the Mountain Hawks host Utah at 1 p.m. Lehigh’s nonleague slate also includes games at the preseason top two teams in the nation in Virginia and Penn State, with the Patriot League opener beginning at home on Feb. 29 vs. Navy.
“We’re trying to be in the moment and live in the present,” said Cassese. “That’s going to be more important than ever because of our wide open league and challenging schedule. We need to make sure we stay focused on the next one up.”