LEHIGH 14, MERRIMACK 12 -“Tumultuous” Week Ends Up A Well-Earned Lehigh Victory

BETHLEHEM, PA – Almost since he was first hired as Lehigh’s head football coach, Kevin Cahill has been preaching the value of bonding together as a team.

Before the season, he organized lots of group activities for the whole team – trips up the Mountain, eating together as a team, taking the bus to practices as a team.

It was, as coach Cahill might have said, all about building a team culture with the Lehigh football program, where they know each other, spend time with each other, and pick each other up.

Lehigh’s 14-12 victory on Saturday at times wasn’t pretty to look at. It was played in steamy, humid Harvard Stadium after a power outage knocked the power out at Merrimack’s campus and lightning delays made a scheduled 4PM kickoff into a 6:15 kickoff.

But maybe something about those team building activities, that bus ride to Merrimack and then Harvard, really paid off this weekend for the Mountain Hawks.

“We knew Merrimack had lost power the night before but they were optimistic they would get it back,” Cahill told Keith Groller of The Morning Call. “But then the next morning it was still bad and they said we can’t play here. So, at one point going to Holy Cross was on the docket and then going to Boston College to play after the Holy Cross-BC game was being considered and then Stonehill was mentioned. Harvard hadn’t started yet, so their stadium was open and they accommodated us, although there was no locker room or bathrooms at first. We got what amounted to a closet to change in. At one point it became a matter of just putting our pads on and going out and playing.”

When all was said and done, the team ended up returning to Lehigh by bus at 4:00 AM Sunday Morning. But ironically, all those twists and turns and unexpected things may have not necessarily been a negative for this team. Instead, it may have bonded them together even more.

“I’m just happy for these kids,” Cahill said after the game. “They’ve been through a lot this week, and we battled. I said this to the staff, if we can come out with a win here. It shows the true grit that we want to have as a program. It was just a lot of things going on with the day and everything and nobody complained. Everybody just played.”

Looking back on the game you could make the argument that it a team win.

It truly wasn’t the cleanest game, but in a game with that slim a margin, it’s easy to point to elements of all three phases that went right enough to win – and a general will to battle through and not let one mistake kill them.

On offense, it wasn’t just the 52 second span where QB Brayten Silbor would find WR Connor Kennedy for touchdowns – one of them a spectacular one-handed grab – it was Kennedy’s touchdown-saving tackle on Silbor’s interception that led to a 3-and-out by the defense instead of a pick six.

It wasn’t just scoring – it was the punt team, with P Ben Banks-Altekruse pinning the Warriors deep in a field position game with three punts inside the 20 yard line, 2 of which went 50 yards. Only one of his ten punts on the day went into the end zone for a touchback.

And it wasn’t just LB Mike DeNucci – who somehow didn’t win Patriot League Defensive Player of the Week – who led the team with 10 tackles and connected on a huge sack late to knock Merrimack out of field goal range. It was DB Nick Petelkian‘s stand at the goal line during Merrimack’s two-point conversion that ended up being the difference in the game.

“It was just great all-around team defense,” DeNucci said after the game. “We stayed together the whole time. We knew once we got the lead, that’s all we needed. We told ourselves [after the TD run] that they wouldn’t score anymore, we stuck behind our offense. It was a great team effort, all 22 guys.”

In short, it was a team win, largely on the back of Lehigh doing a lot of the little things right.

“We trust each other,” Kennedy said after the game. “We pride ourselves on effort, energy and execution and we did that. You know, we fought to the last. We’re a gritty team. We have a good brotherhood and we trust each other, and that’s all that matters.”

Certainly, it is early. There’s a lot of football left to go on Lehigh’s schedule. And there still seems to be plenty that needs improvement. As Cahill himself would probably tell you, he seems to be the type of coach that doesn’t spend a lot of time on the past and instead looks forward.

But there was something very satisfying about this win, a win against a tough opponent – one that was picked to contend for the NEC title this season – that was in every way earned and won by sticking together.

“Did we play the cleanest game? No, we have a lot to clean up,” Cahill said afterwards. “But I’m just really proud coming home with a win.”