With the COVID-19 pandemic still a presence in Americans’ daily lives, Lehigh Athletics looks to regain normalcy as it allows teams to begin training. Among those teams is the men’s soccer program, which is gearing up for its third week of practice under new safety regulations.
Head coach Dean Koski said the athletic department has taken the last seven months to prepare for the opportunity to bring student-athletes back to campus.
“We have a 70-page management plan for everything we need to be doing for our student-athletes and ourselves,” Koski said.
As part of the management plan put in place, teams will be working in phases to limit exposure to ensure the safety of players and coaches moving forward.
The team entered Phase II last week, which means it is allowed eight hours per week for training and practice on the field, but only half the team can be present at one time.
Koski said because there are only 10 players allowed on one half of the field at a time, there will be no scrimmaging. Instead, they will be practicing individual skill work.
By late September or early October, the men’s soccer team will begin the transition into Phase III, which allows for 20 hours of training per week, full team practices and contact. This will allow the coaches to start running scrimmages and other game-like scenarios.
However, some guidelines remain constant regardless of the phase the team enters. When the team reports to practice, players must wear a mask, get their temperature checked before they can enter the locker room and complete the screening on the Hawk Watch app for clearance. Players must also bring their own water to practice to eliminate the possibility of cross contamination.
Right now, the team is using this semester’s canceled season as an opportunity to prepare for a potential spring season.
“I think that whole prospect of the chance of there being a season next semester is what’s keeping us going right now, what’s keeping us motivated,” said senior forward Ikem Mbalewe. “But we have to be realistic: There’s a chance that it won’t happen, and I think everyone’s being realistic with themselves.”
That motivation Mbalewe mentioned was put on display when 85 percent of the team passed the initial fitness test after so much time away from the team and formal training, Koski said.
Players on the men’s soccer team have expressed a new level of appreciation for the sport.
“It is very different, but I think right now we all feel the privilege to play this sport, and we want to get back into competition,” said junior forward Michael Tahiru.
For Koski, the pandemic has broken long-standing routines and rituals that come with the fall semester, but the opportunity to get back to work brings some peace.
“I’ve had 44 years of consecutive preseasons in August, and this is the first year that I didn’t have a preseason,” Koski said, “So my physiological, mental, social, emotional clock was wired to, ‘Alright, it’s go time,’ so I had to recalibrate that in such a way that I could manage it in my mind. I’m in a good place — it’s unique — but it’s unique for all of us. I’m just happy to be out with the guys and see them training and just getting back to coaching.”
While the timing has changed, the goals remain the same for the 2020-2021 Lehigh men’s soccer team. They will be looking for a back-to-back Patriot League Championship whenever that opportunity presents itself.