Despite the obstacles they have to overcome, many walk-on athletes have succeeded at Lehigh.
Being a walk-on athlete is different from being recruited, as it requires players to prove themselves to coaches and future team members in a relatively short period of time and without any prior knowledge.
Many Lehigh teams have walk-on athletes, including men’s lacrosse, tennis and rowing.
Lehigh’s lacrosse team has three walk-on athletes: sophomore goalie Donny Stires and junior midfielders Billy Oppenheimer and Nick Fraboni. It was initially difficult to play at a high level, but after persistence, these athletes rose to the challenge and have gotten playing time on their respective teams.
Being a walk-on requires an extensive tryout, which includes an initial screening and a team evaluation to see how players fit in.
“The biggest things we look for are character, work ethic, toughness, and lacrosse ability… Probably in that order,” said Kevin Cassese, coach of the men’s lacrosse team.
Stires was a walk-on during his freshman year. He became a starter on his high school team as a senior, too late to be recruited for Lehigh’s team. So, becoming a walk-on was his only option. He spoke to Cassese, who offered him a tryout.
Playing lacrosse for a Division I school was a challenge for Stires, since college lacrosse is played at a much higher level than high school lacrosse. But, he eventually acclimated to the team.
“It took me a bit longer to adjust than everyone else because I didn’t know what to expect,” Stires said. “Once the initial walk-on process was done, I fit seamlessly into the team. They were very welcoming. I don’t feel any differences between myself and anyone that was recruited.”
Stires’ role on the team has been expanding after coming into the season lower on the depth chart. On April 7, he was able to help sustain a Lehigh win against nationally ranked Princeton University, playing an entire quarter.
“I’m very grateful the coaches had the confidence in me to put me in during a tie game against a team like Princeton,” he said.
Lacrosse walk-on, Billy Oppenheimer, was originally recruited at Quinnipiac University. However, he transferred to Lehigh after his freshman year.
Being a walk-on motivated Oppenheimer to work harder to ensure that he would make the team and gain respect from teammates.
“The summer before I got to Lehigh was the hardest I had ever worked to improve my game because I knew I had to prove myself,” Oppenheimer said. “And that stuck with me. I never wanted to give my teammates a reason to say I didn’t belong on the same field as them.”
Like Stires, Oppenheimer’s walk-on experience at Lehigh required some adjustment.
“I do think that you have a different mindset as a walk-on,” Oppenheimer said. “For me, I was so happy to just be on the team, anything in addition to that was a bonus.”
Now, Oppenheimer is one of the top midfielders on the team. This past season, he started in six games and finished with 10 goals and six assists, giving him the sixth highest point total on the team.
There is one walk-on athlete on Lehigh’s men’s tennis team: sophomore Graham Lehman. The team had already finished recruiting by the time Lehman expressed interest, but the coaches encouraged him to try out as a walk-on.
After a round-robin tournament against two other potential walk-ons and a series of matches against the current varsity players, Lehman made the team halfway through his freshman year.
“I think it’s pretty cool to be a walk on for a Division I school,” Lehman said. “To be able to walk into a good program in college, not just Division III, but Division I, I think that’s really tough. I pride myself in being a walk-on. I don’t know a lot of people who have done it before.”
At first, Lehman found his mid-season walk-on status challenging since the team had already bonded.
“I thought I adjusted pretty quickly,” Lehman said. “I didn’t know the guys that well so I was shy at first. But I warmed up to them towards the end of the year, and at the beginning of this year, it felt like I’ve known these guys forever.”
Additionally, playing at the level of his teammates and opponents took significant effort. He said it took a lot to step up and play at their level.
Lehman said he is happy he played for the tennis team as a walk-on and now feels just like any other player.
Unlike the tennis and lacrosse teams, Lehigh’s rowing team is known for taking in many walk-ons. This year, the men’s team had eight recruits and 10-12 walk-ons. Freshman Chris Szafranski was one such walk-on.
“The freshman recruits accepted us with open arms and were pretty happy to teach us,” said Szafranski, who had no prior rowing experience.
Although he is no longer on the team, he saw improvements in his rowing and overall physical health. It was a great way for him to meet other student-athletes during his first semester.
“I think that just being on a team in general is an amazing experience,” Szafranski said. “Being part of something and working towards something unites people together, and so all of my best friends are on the rowing team.”
Despite being walk-ons, these athletes have proved that through perseverance, they can qualify for Lehigh teams and have rewarding experiences from both an athletic and social standpoint.