The Beauty of College Sports

By: Justin Lafleur, Lehigh Sports Communications
Last Thursday afternoon, the Lehigh women’s lacrosse team could be found on the practice field. Just hours prior, the Mountain Hawks found out their season was over after the Patriot League announced it was canceling all spring sports due to COVID-19. (The NCAA went on to cancel all winter and spring championships later in the day.)
There aren’t enough words to describe what the student-athletes were feeling – not only at Lehigh, but also across the nation.
But then something happened.
The beauty of college sports came to the surface…
I have been working in college athletics, specifically communications, for more than a dozen years, the last 10 coming at Lehigh. I have worked with men’s sports, women’s sports and what feels like every sport imaginable. There has been one constant very evident from the beginning.
These student-athletes make an incredibly deep investment into what they do.
It truly is a full-time job, on top of the challenging academics at a prestigious institution such as Lehigh. Never mind extracurricular activities.
Back to last Thursday. For perspective, just three days earlier, the women’s lacrosse team earned a 17-8 win at Davidson. Never in a million years could they have imagined that less than 72 hours later, their season would be over.
By no means is a student-athlete’s season (and for some, career) being cut short comparable to the real-world hardships that COVID-19 has brought to so many. But at the same time, there are ripple effects of the Coronavirus that are okay to recognize.
The Patriot League announcement came at 10:30 a.m. and women’s lacrosse was already scheduled for a 2 p.m. practice. At the time, there was a little bit of doubt if the Mountain Hawks’ game scheduled for Saturday at Loyola would be played, since the Patriot League cancellation didn’t go into effect until Monday.
In reality, everyone knew the chances of playing the game were extremely low, but you know what?
The team practiced anyway.
Because they wanted to cherish every single moment together.
My plan was to help capture every last possible moment. As I walked towards the field that day, I was nervous. It’s a situation no one can prepare for, that no one has ever had to deal with. I have worked with this team all 10 of my years at Lehigh, but have never been so nervous for what I would see.
Once I arrived, I saw student-athletes practicing, passing the ball to each other, while in tears. I’ve never seen anything like it, and hope to never see anything like it again. But you know what?
It was beautiful at the same time, speaking volumes to what collegiate athletics is all about.
The NCAA mission statement is “to govern competition in a fair, safe, equitable and sportsmanlike manner, and to integrate intercollegiate athletics into higher education so that the educational experience of the student-athlete is paramount.”
Sports is obviously a significant aspect of the NCAA, but it’s not everything. These student-athletes are invested in not only their individual growth, but also their teammates’ growth and the success of the collective group.
You may have heard student-athletes turn into great employees post-graduation, and one of the reasons is the life skills from being part of a team. They know how to invest time and effort into something bigger than themselves. Most have been playing that sport their entire lives. It’s more than just a sport; it’s part of who they are.
And when it’s taken away in a flash, you have what was on display last Thursday afternoon.
The Mountain Hawks weren’t practicing to beat an opponent. They were having fun with each other. As the practice progressed, more and more tears were replaced by smiles. Sadness turned into an appreciation for one another. It was clear that the student-athletes were recognizing what was happening; it was the last time this team would ever be practicing together.
By the end of practice, there were many more smiles and laughs than tears.

Wanting to end with as much closure as possible, the team honored its seniors on Friday before everyone went their separate ways (due to Lehigh University moving to remote learning for the remainder of the semester).
In less than 24 hours, between Thursday and Friday, t-shirts were made which read “Always A Mountain Hawk.” The senior ceremony saw an underclassman read special messages for each senior over the public address. It wasn’t a “typical” Senior Day – no family was there, just each other – but given the circumstances, it was arguably more meaningful.

The genuine love for one another was as evident as ever.
Speaking of genuineness, the team also took time to express their appreciation for each senior. Taking turns, every student-athlete and coach spoke from the heart, in one of the most emotional parts of the two days.
For someone who has been around collegiate athletics for quite a while, and experienced just about everything, these were two days I will never forget. Instead of focusing on the heartbreak of the situation, I choose to remember the lessons that Lehigh women’s lacrosse showed us.
This story isn’t meant to single out Lehigh women’s lacrosse, but rather use them as one example of what was happening around the country. I can promise you every team was honoring each other, especially the seniors, all in their own uniquely special ways.
When addressing her team on Friday morning after the senior recognition, associate head coach Sammy Cermack said something that should stick with everyone.
“This is why we do it,” referring to why the coaches are in this profession and why the student-athletes play.
“You don’t cry if it doesn’t mean something to you.”

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