Graphic by Annalise Kelloff/B&W Staff

Soccer flashback: Men’s team comes back to advance to NCAA Sweet Sixteen

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The 2006 Lehigh men’s soccer team made program history after defeating Rhode Island 5-4 in penalty kicks to advance to the Division I NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen.

The team, with a 15-2-3 record, had its best season of the 21st century, including highlights of becoming the first team to go through the Patriot League season undefeated, as well as reaching No. 13 in the national polls. Despite these achievements, head coach Dean Koski said they weren’t the most talented team on paper — but came together as a unit to get the job done.

“Everybody was bought in — everybody had a job to do, and they did their job,” Koski said. “It was certainly, by far, our most cohesive team. And when you have a team that’s bought in, and they’re playing for one another, and they’re playing together, it’s incredibly powerful.” 

While most teams enter a new season hoping to win championships and make history, Koski said there’s also a level of reserved optimism going into every season. 

Koski said one of the biggest unknowns was knowing how good the team could be. 

The team had a fifth-year goalkeeper, Jim Morahan, who had only played in one game as an undergraduate, but was granted an extra year of eligibility.

Before the 2006 season, Morahan logged a mere 45 minutes. After the 2006 season, he logged 1,844 minutes and helped lead his team to the Sweet Sixteen. 

When Koski asked Morahan to come back for a fifth-year, he had to take some time to think about it. 

“Ultimately, I went back, and I knew that, come the year 2020, I would probably rather look back and think of that hard work I put in,” Morahan said. “I went back and told (Koski) that I’d be in.” 

Before the Rhode Island match, Lehigh was upset by Bucknell in a Patriot League Semifinal game, decided by penalty kicks.

Despite the loss, the team still had a good enough season to earn an at-large bid and a first-round bye in the NCAA tournament. Not only did Lehigh avoid the first round, but the team also got to host the University of Rhode Island. 

“It was a surreal feeling because we had played in that Patriot League Tournament and in that championship so many times and had so much pressure on us,” said defender John O’Reilly.

O’Reilly said losing to Bucknell was frustrating, but the players knew they had a good chance of qualifying for the NCAA tournament because of their record and national ranking. 

Against Rhode Island, Lehigh found itself headed for penalty kicks once more, with the score tied at 1-1 after regulation time.

Koski said he had all his players thank the fans before the shootout. 

“All they did was gather up, look at the fans and clap and thank them for their support and for being there,” Koski said. “The crowd went crazy and were so jazzed up that I think it really inspired our guys going into penalty kicks because when we went up against Bucknell, we were like deer in headlights, and we weren’t ready for penalty kicks. But we were ready for the penalty kicks against Rhode Island. But that moment where our team saluted the fans was pretty special.”  

O’Reilly said the atmosphere contributed to Lehigh’s penalty kick victory, which the team won 5-4. 

One of the best things about Lehigh, he said, was seeing professors, athletes and non-athletes alike come together to support the team.

Although the game was 14 years ago, there are some things that will stick with this team forever. 

“I remember running inward toward the rest of the team,” Morahan said. “I just wanted to get with those guys and celebrate, but not a whole lot. I wasn’t thinking about the next game — I didn’t care. It was just that we had an obstacle to overcome, which was Rhode Island. At the moment the last kick was taken, it was clear to me that we had accomplished that goal.”

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