When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, the spring athletics season had just begun. Many student-athletes played their last game ever and didn’t even know it.
As a result, the NCAA granted an additional year of eligibility to all spring athletes. There are a total of nine Lehigh seniors from last spring that decided to use a fifth year of eligibility.
Lehigh women’s lacrosse defender Alex Ladda is one of those nine seniors participating in a fifth-year season. She is earning her master’s degree in technical entrepreneurship.
There were clear benefits to Ladda’s decision to come back, as she could, for one, potentially finish her last season of lacrosse the way she had imagined while using her Presidential Scholarship. Ladda said she did look at different graduate programs before making her decision to return to Lehigh.
“It was definitely a contributing factor, knowing that I could go back with that (Presidential) scholarship,” she said.
Ladda and her teammates were just about to begin conference play and had a strong 6-2 record before the season’s cancellation.
Like Ladda, Lehigh women’s lacrosse attacker Autumn Ryan saw a fifth-year at Lehigh as a last shot to compete for a Patriot League Championship.
“It definitely was disappointing at first thinking that it could be the last time that I played with my team, the last time I was with my coaches and my teammates,” Ryan said. “I was super excited to get that last chance at a final season again.”
Being able to return to Lehigh to finish both their athletic careers and their master’s degrees has been appealing for several athletes.
Ryan is in the same graduate program as Ladda, graduating next spring with a master’s degree in engineering for technical entrepreneurship. However, Ryan’s situation is somewhat different from Ladda’s and the other seniors who decided to take advantage of an extra season of eligibility.
At the beginning of her senior season, Ryan made the decision to sit out and defer her eligibility due to an injury. Before the pandemic even hit the United States, Ryan had already decided to continue on for a fifth-year.
“I’m really looking forward to picking up from where we left off from last season,” Ryan said. “We were just about to start Patriot League play and were doing pretty well. I’m excited to see how that translates into the season and see if we can be even better than we were last year.”
Team practices have resumed, and women’s lacrosse has utilized station exercises and is working together in smaller groups.
“It’s a little bit harder since we all can’t be together at one time on the field,” Ryan said. “But I think the school has done a really good job in creating a system where we can practice and get stuff done instead of sitting around and waiting.”
With four returning seniors, the men’s lacrosse team saw the most student-athletes on spring sports teams take advantage of a fifth-year opportunity. Lehigh men’s lacrosse midfielder Andrew Eichelberger is one of those athletes staying at Lehigh for another year to finish his lacrosse career and work on a master’s degree in technical entrepreneurship.
He said the negative impact of COVID-19 on the job market also played a role in senior athletes returning for a fifth year.
“Whether they had outstanding applications or job offers that got rescinded, that definitely contributed to them coming back,” Eichelberger said.
All three athletes agreed the education Lehigh provides was an important factor in their choice to continue on at the university. In addition to the education aspect, their team’s chemistry and their ability to finish out their final seasons as collegiate athletes was influential.
“A couple of my best friends were coming back, and I have 50 other best friends on the team, so it was a pretty easy decision,” Eichelberger said.
There is still no guarantee, however, that these athletes will even be able to compete in the spring. The Patriot League canceled all fall athletics, and it is still unpredictable what will happen with the pandemic throughout the course of the next year.