Ten years ago, the hard work of the Lehigh women’s soccer team finally paid off for the group of seasoned athletes.
Holding an overall record of 11-5-4, the team took its momentum into the Patriot League Championship, where they defeated No. 1 seeded Army 1-0 for its first ever league title.
Although it was Eric Lambinus’s first season as a head coach for Lehigh, the tight-knit team was able to maintain the chemistry the players had previously established before his arrival. This energy gave them the strength they needed to push forward and prepare for what was to come.
In the first two games of the season, Lehigh tied Syracuse University and lost to the University of Dayton. Dayton was especially challenging, since they were ranked as a top-25 team at the time. Despite a rough start, Lehigh was able to tie up the game before eventually falling short.
Regardless of the loss, Lambinus said the game showed them that they could play with anybody in the country. Although it lost key players due to injuries late in the regular season, the team didn’t give up and remained focused.
Lehigh shut out their opponents during the last three games of the season, and their semifinal win against Bucknell gave them confidence going into the Army game.
Despite losing to Army earlier in the season, Lambinus said, come playoff time, the team was in a better position to come out on top.
“We felt we really didn’t put on our best performance,” Lambinus said. “We had a couple of injuries right before that, and we were kind of learning. By the time we got to the playoffs, we had a better sense of who we were.”
After their first playoff win against Bucknell, the team knew that it had to face a competitive Army team down the line and faced a challenge in gaining an edge over the top seeded team.
“We went into the postseason as if it was a whole new season,” said red-shirt senior forward Natalie Hojnacki, ‘10, ‘11G. “We did fitness testing again…We tried to really bring back that energy of how we felt when we initially came in for preseason.”
As a result of an ACL tear during a Lafayette game her freshman year, Hojnacki was sidelined her entire sophomore season, resulting in her red-shirting for an extra year of eligibility.
During her final season, she had to earn her starting spot back, and prove her grit and leadership to Lambinus. She went on to earn Patriot League Offensive Player of the Week and was named to the all-tournament team.
The team’s preparation for the postseason put the players in a position where they felt stronger and more fit than the other teams. Knowing that they were unified as a team and had been working hard to prove themselves in the playoffs, the team had the extra confidence needed to give itself an extra push against the Black Knights.
The 2010 Patriot League Championship win was the women’s soccer team’s first and only title to date. This win gave the women an automatic spot in the NCAA Tournament that year, where they faced No. 2 seeded University of Virginia.
Although Virginia was favored to win from the beginning, the Mountain Hawks managed to keep the score tied for about 70 minutes. Right before the Cavaliers scored, Lehigh had a good look on goal but just missed, hitting the outside out the post.
“Seventy minutes going toe-to-toe with the University of Virginia, who was one of the favorites to win the NCAA tournament that year, was a pretty good accomplishment,” Lambinus said.
Eventually, Virginia took the lead, and Lehigh lost 3-0. This was an especially notable game in Lehigh history not only for Lambinus, but also for the players.
Defender Leah Kulp,‘12, said the process of going to the tournament was a great experience, from the travel, to the practice, to the specific balls they used — everything was thrilling.
Kulp started every game that season as part of a defense that only allowed 20 goals in 21 games. Kulp also earned the title of Patriot League Defensive Player of the Week after a game-saving play against Marist.
“We just had everything in the right place … We had a really strong team, a core team that had been building over the years prior,” Kulp said. “We definitely had tenacity to make it to the championships, because we were so close the year before.”
Lambinus’s first season at Lehigh was one to remember. From winning the program’s first-ever Patriot League Championship to an appearance in the NCAA tournament, Lambinus learned that the Mountain Hawks have what it takes to win championships.
Hojnacki said the team’s determination, coupled with a group of seniors who wanted to make a difference, enabled them to emerge as champions.
“A new coach is always difficult, but the construct of the team really helped that transition,” Hojnacki said.
While the team has yet to match the success of 2010, Lambinus and his coaching staff are working on recruiting a team that can bring them back to winning championships.
“It was great to start off in a certain way… But then we’ve had to learn how to rebuild our program, and I think we’re in a pretty good spot now,” Lambinus said. “It’s been a challenge, as it always is in a tough league with a good sport.”
Lambinus looks forward to getting back on the field and practicing with the team again. He has confidence that he has recruited a strong team that has the potential of winning another Patriot League Championship in the fall.