A bench-clearing celebration is often the mark of a pinnacle athletic achievement, like a championship victory or a game-winning goal.
The bench, usually confined to the sideline, gets a rare chance to celebrate with their teammates on the field. Their usual claps turn into loud cheers, and their rarely-heard voices turn into screams as they rush the field to celebrate with the starters.
When the 2019 men’s soccer team beat Lafayette to win the Patriot League Championship, that’s exactly what happened.
But it wasn’t the first time this had happened in 2019. It wasn’t the second or third time, either. In fact, the 2019 men’s soccer team cleared their bench on almost every goal.
It wasn’t always like this, though. The 2019 team, led by a senior class from all over the U.S., had come a long way in four years. The team didn’t always feel so inclusive, according to the senior class. The bench wasn’t always so involved.
When the current seniors were freshmen, they, at times, felt distant and ostracized from the rest of the team, said senior goalkeeper Ian Marshall.
Senior defender Zarin Tuten said it was hard to explain, but that the freshmen felt like freshmen.
In 2016, the Lehigh men’s soccer program finished with a 7-10-1 record, the only time the now-senior class would miss the Patriot League Tournament. When the team scored, the bench clapped. The seniors felt like the team wasn’t as close or as inclusive as it is now.
After finishing 13-5-3 in their senior season, Marshall said the improvement in record wasn’t due to talent, but a shift in culture.
The senior class made it one of their goals to better integrate the team over their four years, and they executed. In part due to the chemistry established, Marshall said, the team was able to hoist a Patriot League Championship trophy in fall 2019.
“A lot of teams thought it was excessive and unnecessary that we (cleared the bench) on every goal, but it was really just an indication of us as saying we win as a team, we lose as a team, so we’re going to celebrate together,” Marshall said. “The thought we had, and how close we were on and off the field, really helped us mesh as a team.”
Head coach Dean Koski said he felt the seniors’ commitment toward creating a more inclusive environment mirrors the changes in the culture of society.
Koski said, in a generation where kids are growing up to better value inclusiveness, those ideals have been increasingly reflected in the team.
“I think they were wholly committed to making sure that it was team first, and that they reached out to the freshmen when they were coming in and made freshmen feel part of this team,” Koski said. “I think that they have all collectively committed to the notion that we want everyone to feel like equals on this team, and that there’s no hierarchy of classes, and that the seniors aren’t the most important.”
Senior forward Tommy Dokho agreed. He said the respective classes used to feel more spread out, but now, through instilling a family-like atmosphere, it became much easier to have a strong season and stay undefeated at home.
However, aside from team chemistry, the senior class helped instill a hard-working attitude and mindset that netted a championship, Koski said.
In 2016, Tuten said only around five players passed two of the three fitness tests that players are required to take before the beginning of the season.
That team was lethargic and was not mentally focused, Tuten said. After winning a Patriot League Title in 2015, he said the team had a championship hangover. There was no sense of urgency to keep their run of success going.
“People figured the success would keep coming even though you didn’t work for it,” Tuten said. “You have to work for it. We had a really bad season, kids weren’t performing, (and) the coaches were getting frustrated with us.”
Senior defender Nolan Coulter tore his ACL six games into the 2019 season. Although he wasn’t able to physically compete, he was still able to stay involved with the team during their championship run. After he suffered his injury, Coulter told his teammates that he truly felt that they were different this year.
Coulter said part of the reason the team was so successful was that everyone knew their role.
He said they not only had an arguably more talented team his sophomore and junior year, but that team chemistry was at an all-time high because of the inclusive environment.
“I think we were closer off the field, and it showed on the field with our play,” Coulter said. “Everyone accepted their role and knew what we had to do (and) what the goal was.”
Despite the success, Marshall said the team would often bicker with each other and call out teammates who weren’t carrying their weight. He said, seeing how much they argued, one would think they were the worst team in the league.
Marshall said the coaches told the players they’ve never seen a team argue as much as this one did, but it was always for the goal of bettering each other and reaching perfection.
Koski said there was no bigger embodiment of that team culture than Marshall, who spent the majority of his four years backing up senior goalkeeper Will Smith, only appearing in one game against Princeton this year.
Koski said having someone like Marshall, who didn’t play but worked hard every day in practice, served as a great role model and sent a powerful message to the team.
“When Ian (Marshall) shows up every day as someone who doesn’t get to play in matches, who is bought into the team and works hard every day, cares about his teammates, cares about everybody and is now is a senior and not playing — it doesn’t give anyone on the team, particularly underclassmen, a platform to complain about playing time because he knows that’s his role,” Koski said.
Through developing a family-like culture of inclusivity and hard-work, the men’s soccer senior class was able to end their careers with a Patriot League Championship. The team hopes to build off the culture the seniors helped instill for years to come.