‘The Rivalry’ Pauses as Patriot League Cancels Fall Sports

Lehigh and Lafayette will not meet on a football field for the first time since 1896, but the Patriot League has left open the possibility of all fall sports being played in the spring of 2021.

Story by

Stephen Gross

Lehigh and Lafayette football game

There will not be a Lehigh-Lafayette football game in 2020. The last time the two teams didn't meet in 'The Rivalry' game was 1896. (Samuel Henry)

In mid-July, as the COVID-19 pandemic began to surge for a second time since hitting the U.S. late this winter, the Patriot League Council of Presidents made the difficult decision to cancel the fall sports season. 

That decision, which came on the heels of a similar announcement from the Ivy League and was followed by others from the Colonial Athletic Association and Atlantic 10 Conference, not only meant that Mountain Hawk athletics—which has been on a pause since March—would remain on hold indefinitely, but also that the college football world would this fall miss out on one of its grandest traditions: The Rivalry.  

With football season canceled, Lehigh and Lafayette will not take the field for their storied series for the first time in 124 years, though possibility exists the game could be played in the spring of 2021. Along with football, the Lehigh field hockey, volleyball, women's soccer, men's soccer, men's cross country and women's cross country teams also saw their fall seasons eliminated.

"I'm disappointed for our athletes, who surely are eager to compete,” Joe Sterrett ’76, Lehigh’s dean of athletics, said in a statement following the league’s decision. “Yet I fully understand and support the difficult decision made by our league presidents. They properly placed the health of our communities above all else and the trends in health metrics create less optimism than we once held for being able to manage the health of our teams, especially given the travel and direct contact involved in most sports activities. We are and will remain committed to doing all we can to provide a healthy competitive opportunity for fall sport teams, perhaps in the spring."

The 10 full member colleges and universities in the Patriot League are spread across four states and Washington, D.C. At the time of the league’s announcement, cases were rising in three of the four states and Washington.

We have outstanding individuals in our women's soccer program, and I know they will all utilize this adversity to become better versions of themselves.

Eric Lambinus, Lehigh’s head women’s soccer coach

Lehigh’s fall student athletes will still be able to practice, condition and strength train as long as they follow health and safety guidelines.The Patriot League has yet to determine the status of winter and spring sports, but allowed for the possibility of holding fall sports competition and championships during the spring semester.

Due to conditions around the country, and other leagues and conferences announcing the same decision, it didn’t come as a surprise to those in the Lehigh athletics community that the fall sports season was put on hold. Now that the Patriot League has made it official, they’re figuring out how to adapt.

Lehigh's head women's soccer coach Eric Lambinus

Eric Lambinus, Lehigh’s head women’s soccer coach, is having his team adapt, evolve and make the best of the current situation. (Brent Hugo)

"The ability to adapt to one's environment is essential in sports … in work … and in life," said Dean Koski, Lehigh head men's soccer coach. "This will be a wonderful opportunity to challenge our linear approach to a typical college season and think outside the box to perhaps, coach differently and progress our student-athletes in a different model."

Eric Lambinus, Lehigh’s head women’s soccer coach, is taking a similar approach. 

"We are all living in an unprecedented time and we need to adapt and evolve to make the best of the situation," Lambinus said. "We have outstanding individuals in our women's soccer program, and I know they will all utilize this adversity to become better versions of themselves. It is our responsibility as educators to guide them through this process."

 

Head football coach Tom Gilmore said his team, which has been preparing this spring and summer for a fall season, has to shift gears and focus on next spring.

“We are going to have a spring season,” Gilmore said. “There's no other way to approach it. Because if you do have it, and you back off at all, you're not going to be ready, and the whole plan is to be ready when we have that opportunity.”

Since they’ve been away from campus, players were sent multiple workouts to complete on their own, depending on the access they have to equipment. They’ll continue those until students return to campus and by then, Gilmore said, protocols will be in place to safely train, lift and run.

While sports will be missed this fall, the Lehigh community will especially be impacted in mid-November, when the campus community annually comes together for a week of tradition, revelry and school spirit: Bed races on Memorial Walk, “Bedsheet Banners” decorating South Mountain, the Eco-Flame and, of course, the always fiery and festive game itself. 

“To have the most played rivalry in college football as the last game of your season every year is an awesome thing,” Gilmore said. “We're very privileged to be a part of something like that. But at the same time that is the last game of every season; we're not having any part of the season this year. So yeah, it's strange not having the season, and certainly not having the Lafayette game to conclude the regular season is a major blow.”

The last, and only, time Lehigh and Lafayette failed to face off in football in a calendar year came in 1896, when two scheduled meetings were called off. Both were removed from the schedule when Lehigh refused to play, protesting the eligibility of a Lafayette player, George Barclay, due to funds he received for playing professional baseball in Chambersburg, Pa., according to the Nov. 7 edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer from that year.

From the game’s inception in 1884 until 1901, Lehigh and Lafayette met twice per year, except in 1884 when they played three times, and then again in 1896. While the current pandemic has paused The Rivalry, the 1918 influenza pandemic did not, as Lehigh won a 17-0 contest in Easton on Nov. 23 of that year. And while many schools, including Harvard and Yale, canceled games during World War I and World War II, Lehigh and Lafayette continued to play, even meeting twice in 1943 and 1944.

“We're going through an unprecedented set of circumstances, and we haven't seen anything like this in over a hundred years,” Gilmore said. “I think the emphasis now is to keep everyone safe, and healthy, and pray we get a vaccine to allow us to do this in the spring. And while there won't be a 2020 Lehigh-Lafayette game, hopefully there will be two 2021s.”

Justin Lafleur contributed to this article.

Story by

Stephen Gross

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