The Lehigh defense has burst onto the national scene in leading the Mountain Hawks to their first Patriot League Tournament Title and NCAA Tournament berth. While the players have gone out and executed tremendously, two overlooked pieces are assistant coaches and longtime friends Brendan Callahan and Errol Wilson, the masterminds behind the transformation.
Callahan and Wilson were both goaltenders at Stony Brook, Callahan a year younger than Wilson. Their careers overlapped for three seasons from 2004-06. Fast forward a few years and they’re working together again, this time on the sidelines for a defense that’s allowed just 6.62 goals per game (second in the nation), almost three goals fewer than last year. It’s been a dramatic improvement and one of the primary reasons the Mountain Hawks are poised to make noise in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
“Our defense is based on putting our guys in the best situations to be successful,” said Callahan, who’s in his fifth year at Lehigh and first as defensive coordinator. “We sat down and looked at our group of guys and thought of the best defense to run for this group versus saying ‘this is our system.’”
Callahan has been at Lehigh for as long as head coach Kevin Cassese, working with the goalies and defense from day one. But with Taylor Wray taking the head coaching job at Saint Joseph’s, Callahan was promoted to defensive coordinator. This left one spot to be filled, which ended up being his former teammate and friend.
Just days after Wilson accepted a job at St. John’s, the opportunity arose at Lehigh. One of the primary reasons he ended up choosing Lehigh was the chance to work with a friend while helping an up-and-coming program take the next step.
“Brendan was very influential,” said Wilson. “We spent over an hour on the phone before I made my decision. Hearing he’d been here five years and didn’t want to leave was something I was searching for – that consistency. I wanted to end up with the same thing he had. He liked it here; I trusted him and always have.”
“I was able to give Errol some insight into what working for Coach Cassese was like,” said Callahan. “Those are the things you don’t find out on a job interview or phone conversation with a head coach. He’d just taken the job at St. John’s and was torn.
“It wasn’t like I was trying to sell him on anything,” Callahan continued. “I told him like it was and what we’ve got going on. I think that conversation was a big factor in him coming to Lehigh.”
Wilson has a plethora of experience under his belt, beginning with his first year out of college when he followed his coach from Stony Brook (Lars Tiffany) to Brown. To this day, both Callahan and Wilson credit much of their success to Coach Tiffany. Wilson helped lead the Bears to an Ivy League Championship in 2008 and NCAA Tournament berth the following year. He worked with All-American goalie Jordan Burke, and was (ironically) offensive coordinator before serving as Associate Head Coach at Rutgers last season.
“Brendan and Errol are both outstanding coaches,” said Cassese. “But what makes them special is the tremendous strength of character and the unwavering commitment to excellence they both exhibit on a daily basis. They’re different people with different personalities, but at the end of the day, they’re both high level leaders, top notch educators and flat out winners.”
Callahan and Wilson first met in the fall of 2003. Callahan was a young, eager freshman, and Wilson the experienced sophomore who played in eight games his rookie campaign, posting a strong 8.92 GAA and 55.6 save percentage.
“Being goalies together, we were in the same drills from the first day of practice,” said Callahan. “You’re out at practice early and staying late as a group. We spent a lot of time on the field and that translated off the field as well.”
“I remember Brendan coming in fighting for an opportunity to start,” said Wilson. “The goalie position was wide open. I watched him become a defensive leader and eventually an All-American. There were never hard feelings and we became friends right away.”
Wilson essentially mentored Callahan, who was adjusting to college life, never mind college lacrosse. The two ended up living in the same dorm for three years.
“He’s somebody I went to with questions,” said Callahan. “I asked him about stuff the coaches or the orientations can’t help you with… those little things in the college experience.”
“On the field, we were really competitive,” said Wilson. “We weren’t necessarily out to beat the other. We were out to succeed as best we could, individually, and to help the team. Off the field, we got along fine from the moment he stepped foot on campus.”
Callahan became the primary starter as a freshman, posting a stellar 5.97 GAA and 68.7 save percentage, both tops in the nation, to earn honorable mention All-America honors. He held on to his starting duties throughout his college career, but fell just shy of the NCAA Tournament. Stony Brook made the America East Tournament each season, dropping overtime heartbreakers in the Semifinals both his freshman and junior campaigns while falling to Albany in the Championship Game as a sophomore.
“We spent a lot of time pushing each other,” said Callahan. “There were times when I was ahead of him and times he was ahead of me on the early-season depth charts. He’d be out early working out, getting extra shots and that’d push me to do the same. That part was very competitive, but off the field, we were rooting for each other.”
After Wilson graduated in 2006, he immediately became an assistant coach at Brown. That ultimately helped Callahan, who had the luxury of asking a good friend what coaching was like in his eventual decision to coach himself.
“Just having some of those informal conversations with Errol convinced me that coaching could be for me,” said Callahan. “As a player, all you think coaches do is watch film and come up with practice plans, but there’s a lot more to it. To get an idea of those other aspects was important.”
The two used the coaching connection to stay in touch over the ensuing years, seeing each other on the recruiting trail.
“We kept in touch as best we could,” said Wilson. “During the summer with recruiting trips, I stayed with Brendan at his mom’s house. We tried to meet up when we could. If our paths didn’t cross, every so often we’d call each other or text back and forth.”
“You get to see him more than just a buddy from college,” said Callahan. “You’re finding time when your work paths cross – sitting with each other recruiting on the sidelines, lunches on the road and more.”
There was always that coaching connection, which led into today – being reunited at Lehigh. After a tough 17-7 loss in their home opener, the Mountain Hawks have won 13 of their last 14, giving up only 85 goals in that span (6.07 per game). Callahan and Wilson work together and complement each other extremely well, and it wasn’t more evident than the team’s nine-game winning streak. It began in a big way with a 13-0 win over Manhattan, Lehigh’s first shutout in 40 years.
“It definitely took us the first month or so to figure out how to work together,” said Callahan. “Errol wants it written down, drawn up and planned out while I’m more ‘here’s my idea, let’s talk it out.’ Coach Cassese comes up with a practice plan, then we spend a half hour going through everything to make sure we’re on the same page.
“Our chemistry goes back to the Stony Brook days, some of those intangible things that come with knowing each other and being friends before colleagues,” Callahan continued. “You can’t quantify the value in that.”
The Mountain Hawks have switched things up to a more slide-oriented, help defense. Lehigh is hard to play against, double teaming to add pressure and cause turnovers. The focus on defense started from day one of preseason camp.
“Defense was the first emphasis at practice this year,” said Callahan. “We spent a whole day teaching the offensive guys and everyone how to play our base defense. We’ve been able to put some pressure on offenses and make them do things they don’t want to do.”
“Early on, we developed a philosophy that made sense based on our personnel and we stuck to it,” said Wilson. “We’ve morphed it as best we could from game to game and practice to practice based on a number of factors. We put a philosophy in place – everyone needs rules and structure – but at the end of the day, we were comfortable with making it better, and not being afraid to make changes.”
“There’s no doubt that our defense has been the catalyst to the team’s success this year, especially during our winning streak,” said Cassese. “Brendan and Errol deserve much of the credit for working hard to develop and implement individual defensive techniques and big picture team defensive schemes.
“I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the tremendous contribution that Coach Wray gave to this group as the defensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator for the previous four years,” Cassese continued. “I’ve been blessed to have great assistant coaches here at Lehigh – great lacrosse minds, but even better men.”
From day one at Stony Brook to where they are today, Callahan and Wilson have led Lehigh to Patriot League supremacy. Now, attention shifts to the NCAA Tournament. The Mountain Hawks have focused on a “one-game winning streaks” all season, solely thinking about the next task at hand. Lehigh is two “one-game winning streaks” away from the Final Four, and just four from capturing a National Championship.
“We want to focus on the small plays in our next game,” said Wilson. “We want to focus on every moment in that game, one moment at a time. If we focus on the small things, the scoreboard will take care of itself. Our aspiration is to beat the next team.”
“With the way the year went and the type of schedule that we played, our guys believe they can play with anybody,” said Callahan. “When they go into a game against any opponent with that confidence, they can play with anybody and make some noise in the tournament.”
“By no means do I believe our team is satisfied,” said Wilson. “The Patriot League Championship was the first goal in a step to many.”