Lukas Mikelinich has progressed as a student, athlete and all-around person, much like the Lehigh program he's now leading.
Often overlooked, Mikelinich has used a hard-working attitude to become an All-League defenseman and senior co-captain for a Mountain Hawks' team with high aspirations entering the 2015 season. He embodies the type of attitude, mindset and identity that head coach Kevin Cassese wants in his program.
"In high school, I had a toughness, mentality where I thought I was tougher than the other guy," Mikelinich said. "Now, I know that I'm tougher. I have this supreme confidence and when I play with supreme confidence, I can't be beat. I know that whoever I'm matched up against, my best effort will be better than theirs."
Mikelinich's words could be perceived as cocky, but that's the last thing he is. The mindset comes from confidence which emulates from hard work and belief in his abilities. That hard work has already led to tremendous experience, and success, at the collegiate level when at one time, he wasn't a highly-touted recruit. Now, he's a captain for a perennial contender at the Patriot League and national level.
It wasn't always easy, and that's what makes Mikelinich's story even more compelling. College is a time to learn and grow. There's no better example than Mikelinich.
"I look back at myself as an 18-year old kid walking onto this campus. I wasn't ready for any of this," he said. "Back in high school, I was a big fish in a little pond then I became a small fish in an ocean [college]. I've grown tremendously, not only physically, but also mentally."
"I recruited Lukas because he was a relentless competitor," Lehigh head coach Kevin Cassese said. "He had an incredible motor on the lacrosse field. He hustled. He was tough. He never backed down from a challenge. He came to us an incredibly personable young man, full of ideas and focused on his goals. No doubt, he was a little rough around the edges -- I'm sure he'd be the first one to admit that -- but, this kid had a huge heart and it didn't take long for us to realize he was going to be a perfect fit for our program."
Like Mikelinich, Lehigh was on the cusp of greatness in 2011 -- his freshman year. In order to break through, both Mikelinich and the program had work to do. Ultimately, the Mountain Hawks qualified for the Patriot League Tournament for the first time since 2006, but they weren't satisfied.
"That year made us hungry because we realized that we had the potential, talent, tenacity and heart to make it to that next level," Mikelinich said.
As a freshman, Mikelinich played in just six games, but tallied three groundballs and a caused turnover in an April game against then-No. 10 North Carolina. That proved to be a coming out party of sorts for him. Ironically, a year later, the Mountain Hawks would beat the Tar Heels, serving as the program's turning point in its rise to national prominence.
Mikelinich is one of just two current players who experienced the Lehigh program before that point. In 2012 (Lukas' sophomore season), the term 'flywheel' was used by Cassese which embodies the collective momentum Mikelinich and the Mountain Hawks were hoping to bring, and has ultimately developed, over the past few years. The concept was presented to the team after a 17-7 home-opening loss to Villanova.
"The concept of the flywheel was taken from one of my favorite books: 'Good to Great,' " Cassese said. "The flywheel is a large, heavy, circular object that requires intense pushing by a group of people in order to get the wheel in motion. However, once the flywheel starts rolling in the right direction, the momentum gained makes it easier to push. In fact, you do less pushing and more guiding and steering than anything else. So, for our program in 2012, we needed to do some heavy pushing after that early-season loss. That took all team members getting on the same page and pushing in the same direction. We were able to achieve this and it allowed us to start rolling."
Lehigh rolled to a 14-3 record, its first Patriot League Tournament championship and NCAA Tournament appearance. After that season which saw Mikelinich earn second team All-Patriot League honors, he sat out his junior campaign due to personal reasons. He withdrew from school in the spring of 2013 and followed from afar as his teammates won consecutive Patriot League titles.
Ultimately, Mikelinich decided to re-enroll at Lehigh and come back for 2014, due in large part to his classmates and Coach Cassese.
"Coach Cassese has been a father figure for me," Mikelinich said. "He's been nothing but supportive and nothing but encouraging throughout these last five years. He's been a huge support system since I walked in the door. To be honest, I didn't know if I was coming back. From the support of the team and the support of the coaching staff, there was no pressure on me."
The lack of pressure played a significant role in him deciding to return to Lehigh. A multi-sport athlete growing up, he decided to focus on lacrosse due to his passion for the sport. The love for the game, combined with the people in the program, led to Mikelinich re-enrolling.
"I kind of had an enlightening moment when I asked myself, what am I doing? These are my best friends; these are my boys. I've been through so much with them," Mikelinich. "I didn't want one bad year to define me. I didn't want to go out like that. It was like turning over a new leaf."
Mikelinich returned to the starting lineup and didn't miss a beat. He played an integral role on defense, stepping in for graduated All-League defenseman Mike Noone.
He finished his senior season with career highs in groundballs (37) and caused turnovers (18) as Lehigh again stood among the nation's top defenses.
The entirety of last season was unique for Mikelinich, in that he didn't know if he'd return for a fifth year. Within the Patriot League, student-athletes must wait until after their fourth year to determine if they'd be granted a fifth year of eligibility.
"I'm essentially in my second senior year right now," Mikelinich said. "It was a little nerve-racking, but I'm just blessed to be here now. I'm never taking a moment for granted, I'm savoring every day and every moment I walk out on the field."
Mikelinich's personal growth at Lehigh has been impressive, culminating with being named a captain to lead the 2015 Mountain Hawks. He's learned a lot from past captains and leaders like Rich Bradley, current Lehigh assistant coach Will Scudder, Cameron Lao-Gosney, Roman Lao-Gosney, Brian Hess and Ty Souders.
"I was both happy and proud when Lukas was selected as a co-captain of this team," Cassese said. "A couple years ago, I didn't know if he'd stay at Lehigh or if I'd ever have the chance to work with him again. Lukas is a true success story. He's faced many challenges in his life, most of which have had nothing to do with lacrosse. He made a conscious decision to attack those challenges head on and he's become a better man because of it."
Mikelinich is one of two captains, but the team's leadership doesn't begin and end with the co-captains.
"I think with my style along with Dan Taylor, the coaching staff and the entire senior class, we complement each other," he said. "We have a phenomenal group of upperclassmen and I commend everyone for their leadership abilities. I'm very fortunate to not be on my own as the sole leader. A lot of guys have my back. The whole team has really bought in this year and it's really exciting."
On the field, Mikelinich is poised for continued success. He is stepping into the defense's leadership role and is making a positive impact on his teammates.
"We watch film together a lot and he's taken that Ty Souders role as quarterback of our defense, telling everyone what their role is while knowing his at the same time," said junior defenseman Casey Eidenshink. "I go to him with questions about where I should be, what he thinks about certain sets and things like that. He comes out with the right attitude. He's definitely taken on a vocal leadership role, but he also leads by example by doing the right things and working hard on the field, off the field and in the weight room."