“Keep the lights on… I’m going to stay and shoot after this.”
Junior guard David Roelke wanted to get some extra practice. Gone were his teammates — recruited athletes who owned roster spots on the men’s basketball team three months ago.
Roelke was afforded no such privilege.
The 6’2” guard and Sharon, Massachusetts, native fondly recalls his experience playing basketball in high school. Yet, as he neared graduation, injuries kept him off the court. His hopes of continuing his basketball career in college grew dimmer and dimmer.
“It was a little disappointing not to get the kind of offers that I wanted,” Roelke said.
Roelke arrived at Lehigh in the winter, starting his freshman year one semester late. As a newcomer to college life, he found comfort in a familiar space — the basketball courts in Taylor Gym — where he would rekindle a connection to a previous teammate, as well as to the sport he loved.
“Coming here a semester late, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” Roelke said. “One of my ex-high school (team) captains was a senior when I was a freshman here. He brought me onto the club team when I got here and got me integrated into the Taylor (Gym) pickup.”
The following semester, the women’s basketball team suffered a plague of preseason injuries. Head coach Sue Troyan then faced a challenge: if she could not restock the depleted roster, her team would fall short of players requisite for a full practice. As a remedy, she sent her staff to seek out male athletes to fill the missing practice slots.
Women’s associate head coach Glenn Rigney approached Roelke and invited him to join with three other male athletes who would round out the practice roster. After some deliberation, Roelke agreed. The experience still remains a highlight of his college experience.
“It was fantastic,” Roelke said. “Hanging out with the (team) was always fun.”
Troyan praised Roelke’s contribution in practice, calling him a perfect fit for the role.
“He’s… a kid that was just willing to do whatever we asked in any type of role as a practice player,” Troyan said. “He was the leader of the practice squad (and) the most skilled player.”
Despite its slew of injuries, last season’s women’s team finished with a respectable 15-15 record. Troyan attributes much of the team’s success to the intensity of its practices.
The sensational story Roelke began to spread within Lehigh’s athletic department. As both the men’s and women’s seasons carried out, it became more difficult for men’s head coach Brett Reed and his staff to ignore the 6’2” guard’s skillful shot. They often witnessed Roelke in action when the men’s and women’s Stabler Arena practice times would overlap.
Reed remembers his first impressions of Roelke.
“Some of our players had gotten the chance to get to know him and thought highly of him, the type of character that he displayed, and how he represented himself,” Reed said.
Troyan would often praise Roelke’s performance on the court to the men’s coaching staff, encouraging them to take a look at his talents.
“(The men’s staff) would be watching David in the last hour playing against our kids,” Troyan said. “We would go up to them (and say), ‘This kid could actually help you guys.’”
Little did Troyan know, her words carried weight.
With his determination at an all-time high, Roelke decided to try out for the men’s varsity team as a walk-on.
He spent the summer balancing a demanding internship on a political campaign and an even more rigorous training schedule. Assisted by college athletes past and present, Roelke began to embrace the increasingly familiar grind of collegiate training. In the mounting difficulty of his workouts, Roelke found solace in the advice of former Lehigh men’s basketball walk-on Georgios Pilitsis, ’17.
“He told me… ‘it’s going to be a lot of hard work. You’re going to hate a lot of it, but when you come out, you’re going to be a better person,’” Roelke said.
The school year began, and Roelke’s moment to shine was imminent. The culmination of his hard summer’s work earned him a tryout, and upon its successful completion, the respect of his new head coach, Reed.
“We created some physical challenges, but he never quit,” Reed said. “He never took a shortcut. And he competed at a pretty high level.”
Roelke now owns a spot on this year’s men’s basketball roster as most recent backcourt addition to a team with seven other guards — all recruited athletes. No stranger to adversity, Roelke knows his work is far from over.
“It’s something where I have to keep pushing and keep going for it,” Roelke said. “I feel like I need to keep working to earn my spot, constantly.”
From injured high school player to Division I athlete, Roelke has ascended the collegiate athletic ranks and now stands poised to contribute to a championship-contending unit.