(Photo Courtesy of Lehigh Athletics)
The Kevin Cassese era is, without a doubt, one of the most successful in the history of Lehigh lacrosse. Since his arrival ahead of the 2008 season, the Mountain Hawks have gone 108-90 overall, 49-37 in the Patriot League, won the Patriot League and made secured berths in NCAA tournament twice (2012,2013), and made nine Patriot League Tournament appearances.
As of recent, the Mountain Hawks lost in the Patriot League title game the past two full seasons. They fell 15-8 to Loyola in 2018 and 11-7 to Army in 2019. Both losses cut their NCAA Tournament hopes, even as an at large, right in half. In 2020, Lehigh looked to be on the track to the top of the Patriot League, and certainly had the talent in place to be an NCAA tournament team. They boasted a 5-1 record, which featured wins over Utah, VMI, NJIT, Navy, and Holy Cross. Their lone loss was against the defending champion Virginia, 12-8, in week two.
Coming into the 2021 season, Lehigh looks to make their first trip back to the NCAA Tournament since 2013 and go further than they did in either of their past twi trips. And they certainly have the personnel to get the job done, especially with four seniors from last year returning.
Connor Gaffney is, arguably, the biggest fifth-year returnee for this Mountain Hawks squad. Serving as the Mountain Hawks’ primary faceoff man for the past four seasons, Gaffney has put together multiple historic seasons and broken conference records. Last season, he went 67-for-102 (65.7%) at the dot and finished ninth in the nation in win percentage. Having Gaffney, a multi time All-American and All-Conference selection, back at the dot will be crucial for the Mountain Hawks in 2021. He is a guy that they can lean to help lead the way
Midfielders Andrew Eichelberger (9G/4A) and Crew Cintron (2G/4A) will both be back as fifth-year guys. The two were the fifth and sixth leading scorers on the quad last season. The pair are the Mountain Hawks’ top returning midfielders and are expected to be even more heavily relied on this coming spring than they were last year.
In addition to those two, Lehigh also returns two stellar playmakers at attack with senior Tommy Schelling (22G/11A) and sophomore Christian Mule’ (16G/5A). The two churned out stellar seasons during 2020 and are expected to repeat that same success in 2021. Cole Kirst (2G/3A) looks to slide into that third attckmen spot with the graduation of Andrew Pettit. Kirst put together a strong sophomore campaign as a key reserve and made one start.
The core of this Lehigh offense, which ranked 15th (14 goals per game) in the nation last season, is a solid one and can certainly carry the weight asked of them. Despite a few losses to graduation, this offense still looks to be an elite one, certainly within the Patriot League. And with the aforementioned faceoff situation, they could certainly have plenty of extra possessions to show what they’ve got.
On the defensive end, things look pretty similar. Ranked as the 14th best (9.67 goals per game) scoring defense in the nation, Lehigh returns the majority of their personnel from a year ago. Amongst the defensive returners is junior defenseman Anthony Tangredi (14GB/16CT), who was tied for second (2.67) in the nation in caused turnovers per game and the Mountain Hawks’ top pole last season.
Outside of Tangredi, the Mountain Hawks return a full-time starter in junior Patrick Mcilory (9GB/3CT) and their top LSM in Teddy Leggett (26GB/5CT). Matt Douglas (10GB/4CT), who started two games last season, and Judah Hicks (8GB/2CT), who had a solid season as a reserve, will both be back and look to take another step forward in production. And, honestly, this entire unit should be able to take a vert similar step forward together after developing chemistry and their efforts in the shortened 2020 season.
The biggest returnee on the defensive end, and many would say the entire team, is senior goalie James Spence. Serving as the Mountain Hawks’ starting goalie for the past three seasons, Spence ranked 11th in the nation in goals against average (9.20) last spring. He posted as 53% save percentage, which included three contests in which he recorded double-digit saves.
Spence is the anchor for this defense, which should be a top-20 unit once again, and his play will likely set the tone for everyone else on the back end. And like we have seen from Lehigh over the past few seasons, the defensive end is where they will butter their bread. And if that strong defensive identity does indeed come to the forefront again, we could very well be looking at a Lehigh team that, at least, makes another Patriot League Tournament run.