It had been 15 years since Jacob Gottwald first touched a soccer ball and the day he dreaded had arrived: His career was over.
But one phone call, one injury, one more chance changed that.
Gottwald, a senior, walked on to the Lehigh men’s soccer team as a freshman in 2013 and today he is the starting goalie for his final season.
“I wasn’t a typical walk-on,” Gottwald said. “I didn’t show up on walk-on day. Coach (Dean) Koski called me and asked if I could walk on to the team because of an injury and they needed someone to step in and be a third string goalie. And I responded ‘Yeah of course. Obviously.’”
Koski was familiar with Gottwald’s talent before he arrived at Lehigh because his club team practiced at Ulrich Sports Complex. The coach had asked him to come to a clinic but didn’t hear back from him until August, a few weeks before preseason was starting. Gottwald was already set to start school at Lehigh in the fall and was excited to be able to continue his soccer career at a collegiate level.
When he first arrived to practice his freshman year, Gottwald was just trying to adjust to the team, saying at the time he didn’t really feel like he belonged.
Senior Danny Gonzalez was relieved to hear Gottwald would be joining the team when it only had two healthy goalkeepers on the roster. Not knowing what to expect from Gottwald at the first practice, Gonzalez said regardless of the performance, the team is always very close.
“Whether you have walked on to the team or you were recruited, it does not matter,” Gonzalez said. “We are all playing on the same field on the same team. Guys like (Gottwald) make it clear that walk-ons can add a lot of value to the team.”
Sports teams manifest a competitive environment. Joining a team full of recruited athletes as a walk-on isn’t easy in certain situations but Gottwald said, despite trying to adjust, he was welcomed to the team with encouragement and support.
However, he always felt like he needed to prove himself.
“I can remember one of the guys, the goalie who got hurt actually, the whole reason I was on the team, training with me one morning, just working on individual stuff,” Gottwald said. “He came up to me and was like ‘You’re here now. You don’t have to keep telling me you’re lucky to be here, take this opportunity.’ And that was kind of the point where I was like whoa, I can actually do this.”
Gottwald practiced hard every time he stepped out on the field, playing with passion and determination to get better with every touch. His hard work paid off.
He was named the starting goalie in the first Patriot League game of the season.
“Coach came up to me right before we started practice,” Gottwald said with a grin on his face. “He looked at me and was like ‘I want you to wrap your mind around this. You’re going to start this game for us.’”
Gottwald was shocked.
Coming on to the team as the third string goalie, he had never expected to see the field his freshman year. He can remember his coaches coming up to him during practice and asking him where his confidence was at, and looking at them telling them he was feeling good and ready and happy to be there.
Throughout the seasons leading up to this one, Gottwald never stopped giving every ounce of effort he had and it landed him the starting position. He joined a team at a time where he was surrounded by talented goalkeepers as well as an experienced goalkeeping coach, and Koski believes this environment allowed for Gottwald to grow as a player.
“You put all those things together and you have a young man who is really eager to get better and to work at his game,” Koski said. “It’s not surprising to any of us that he’s really developed as well as he has over the course of the past three and a half years. Everything that he has become is because he has worked at it.”
Now as a senior and starting goalie, he feels his role on the team has changed and sees himself as a leader, even though he wasn’t a four-year starter like some of the other players. The goalkeeper is a position that demands leadership in itself.
“Being a senior, the whole team looks up to you,” he said. “Especially the younger guys, and being a goalkeeper as well you have to be barking out orders and keeping everyone in line. I’ve definitely had to become more of a leader as the years have gone.”
Right now, the team is 2-3 overall, having just broken a three-game losing streak. Gottwald said during the streak, there were times when the team defended well, but was unable to score and vice versa. The team’s focus now, according to him, is putting together a complete game.
“We are just trying to put it all together right now and get guys minutes and get the lineup set,” he said. “But once we kind of put the puzzle together, I think we’re going to be tough to beat.”