Lehigh 2015 Preview: They’re Going D-I, Can They Compete?

Lehigh 2014.
Lehigh 2014, with Nick “Falcore” Mathison at right facing the camera.

After tying for fifth at D-III Nationals for the second year in a row, Lehigh has shifted gears entering into the 2015 spring series. A perennial contender, Lehigh fell in the quarterfinals last year to Bentley, who would go on to win the D-III National Championship in Westerville, OH.

However, the team has made the decision to compete at the D-I level in the series this spring.

For the team to improve upon its past, Lehigh needs to progress from being an outstanding team to an unstoppable one. D-III ultimate has come a long way since the creation of the D-III National Championship in 2009, and although Lehigh has always been in the hunt, they’ve never been able to win it all. The skills and athleticism of D-I players are even more impressive than the top-end of D-III players, however. If they want to have a chance at competing in the series, Lehigh is going to have to step up their game.

It appears as if they have.

Positives

Consistency: this Lehigh team has been good for a long time, and has a history of replacing great graduates with well-developed, athletic newcomers. They graduated eight players last year, but have filled those roles with developed underclassmen as well as B-team players.

A Strong Fall: A 16-2 record this past fall showed that this team is ready to roll in the spring. With their only two losses coming at Steel City Showdown, one of the most competitive fall tournaments each year, they proved that they have what it takes to go all the way. Their losses came to Northwestern (8-10), who lost in the game-to-go to D-I Nationals last year, and Michigan (8-10), who did make it to D-I Nationals and tied for fifth there. No one should merely excuse Lehigh for losing to two great teams; they should be amazed at how well Lehigh played against them.

A Budding Star: D-III Ohio Valley Player of the Year Nick ‘Falcore’ Mathison is back in his fifth year, and looks better than ever. He recently attended and impressed at the U-23 USA Worlds tryout camp, if his other accolades don’t already express his immense talent enough. He looks ready to lead Lehigh into the spring series with a force, and with the tough talent in the D-I division, they’re going to need him.

Training: The team has revamped its training regimen and deepened its roster. “Starting this season and going forward, we plan to grow larger and run deeper into our roster…,” said Mathison. “It was evident that we ran ourselves thin and were not fresh come Sunday at Nationals. We definitely will not make that same mistake again … In addition to maximizing our allotted practice time, we are working twice as hard outside of practice with track and gym workouts. We have actually reached out to Lehigh’s Strength and Conditioning Director to give us help in constructing a gym routine and additional agility ladders and drills. I believe this will give us an edge that Lehigh Ultimate has never had.”

Concerns

D-I’s depth: With D-I Nationals in their sights, Lehigh’s competition is going to be much tougher than in recent years when they were competing at the D-III level. While a 16-2 fall record is impressive, it’s important to note that this team went 17-2 in the fall of 2013. It’s encouraging to see the same great results, but they’re going to have to turn it up a notch in the spring if they want to get past fifth place.

Turnover: Lehigh lost some core players in Tyler Kenney and Jeff Gilbert, two starting handlers and captains, among eight total players lost to graduation after last spring. While younger players have stepped up to fill those roles (Adam Kafka, Patrick Peterson, and Kevin Scales have stepped up to fill the roles by Kenney and Gilbert), it remains to be seen whether those vacant roles can be adequately filled in the spring.

Playing Style

Watching the team this fall, it’s apparent that they aren’t content to rely on their depth and athleticism to win games: by utilizing different offensive sets, zones, and bracketing in games this Lehigh team will always keep their opponents on their toes. At Fall Brawl, for instance, Lehigh played a Penn State team who had to deal with multiple offensive looks, plus both man and zone defense. While many teams experiment with different sets in the fall, Mathison confirmed that the team would like to carry this versatility with them into the spring. “Over the course of this year we have tried to open up the general play to be more dynamic…,” said Mathison. “This pays off in not being predictable and giving our guys the ability to do what they do best.”

The team also benefitted from a visit from Philadelphia Patrol (finished 4th in the Mid-Atlantic Club Region) captain David Baer, who, according to Mathison, revamped the handler motion that Lehigh had been looking to improve earlier in the fall. “We are giving more opportunities for our dumps to go up field with the confidence that someone else will fill quickly,” Mathison said. “[Baer] was a huge help in our handlers’ success.”

Likely Ceiling

A good run at D-I Ohio Valley Regionals, but not a spot at Nationals. This is a good team that can compete at the D-I level, but it is a completely different game than D-III. Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Ohio, and several other top-end teams will all give Lehigh trouble. However, if there was a year to go D-I, this would be it. The team looks better than ever, and would be a lock for a championship run if they remained at the D-III level. Mathison and the leadership of the team are confident in their ability to play deep into the bracket.

“Our goal would be to make it to the end of bracket play at Regionals,” Mathison said to me when prompted about what the team expects of themselves in the series. “I believe we have the talent and depth to play strong throughout the entire tournament.”

While they will be up against some strong opposition, I wouldn’t count Lehigh out.

Likely Floor 

A quick exit at Regionals. As I said before, there are a half-dozen great teams at the top of the Ohio Valley region. Lehigh is talented, but they’ll have their hands full in every game. Making it out of pool play is nowhere near guaranteed. We’ll see how they handle the level of competition come this April. If their performances at Steel City this past fall are any indication, they won’t give anyone an easy game.

  1. Kyle Murray
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    Kyle Murray is the D-III Editor for Ultiworld. He is a senior at Ohio Wesleyan University, captaining the Firedogs for the second year. You can reach him at ksmurray@owu.edu.

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