At every home game for the Amherst College men’s soccer team, around 300 fans from the school and the town gather to watch the squad play. The fans cheer for the players by name, some bring signs and some just stop by on their walk through campus.
Some parents travel pretty far to watch their sons play, including Gary Lehnhart, who comes all the way from Juneau, Alaska.
After being snowed in at the Juneau airport for the NCAA Division III Tournament semifinals last year, Lehnhart booked his ticket to Kansas City, Missouri, as soon as he knew that his son Jackson’s team made it to the finals. Gary made it to the Kansas City International Airport in time for the game, but got lost on the way to Swope Soccer Stadium just 29 miles away.
“I literally pulled up to the stadium 15 minutes before the game started,” Gary Lehnhart said.
The trip was well worth it. In the game against Loras College, Jackson Lehnhart took a corner kick from Luke Nguyen and flicked his head just right to send the ball into the top-left corner of the net. His header tied the game 1-1 en route to a 2-1 victory.
As the game went on, the elder Lehnhart sat on the sidelines and watched his youngest son play. At one point, the ball went out of bounds right in front of him, and Jackson went over to take the throw-in.
“When the ball rolled up, it hit me and I tossed it to Jackson to throw it in, and he said ‘thanks Dad’,” Gary Lehnhart said.
Jackson Lehnhart, a senior captain, did not always have a clear role for Amherst, and that game was an exception to the norm, as he rarely scores goals for the team.
At Juneau Douglas High School, Lehnhart was a star forward. He holds school records for most goals (60) and assists (39), and his team won a state championships in 2011. As a senior, he won Alaska Gatorade Player of the Year for boys soccer, an honor given to one athlete per sport each year in every state.
After a successful high school career, Lehnhart had to choose between playing Division I at Gonzaga or Division III at Amherst. He ultimately chose Amherst because he wanted the quality education that he can get at the NESCAC school.
After moving almost 4,000 miles away from home, Lehnhart had to find his place on a new team. Being the powerful goal scorer that he was in high school did not work in the Amherst dynamic, and he had to adjust to his new role as a supporting player. In his first two seasons, Lehnhart started only two games.
“For me, it was pretty quick that I realized that I wasn’t going to be a star, I wasn’t going to be scoring lots of goals, and it was really important that I realize it early and change my mindset,” Lehnhart said.
Said Amherst coach Justin Serpone: “He played like every position on the field for two years, didn’t really have a spot, didn’t really know if he was a guy that was going to be on the field ever. We tried him at center back in the (2015) alumni game and all of a sudden he was good.”
Even though Lehnhart (five goals, three assists) has not been the star scorer at Amherst, his talents have been recognized in the back field. He was recently named All-NESCAC second team for his performance.
After the NCAA championship game in 2015, he earned all-tournament honors.
“His ruggedness came out, which is perfect because it’s what you need for a center back,” said senior teammate Forest Sisk. “He can jump like a freak. … He’s wicked. You can see that in his game, he can climb up people’s backs and win headers over people who are 3-4 inches taller than him.”
Lehnhart’s collegiate soccer career has at least one more game. Amherst (17-1-1) will host Brandeis (12-5-3) at 11 a.m. Saturday in the Sweet 16.
“His consistency, his toughness every day means so much for the program, he’s been a big part of Amherst soccer for four years. I’m certainly going to miss him next year,” said Serpone.
Gary Lehnart is proud of his son and has enjoyed watching his evolution as a player and a person: “He’s still the same good person that he was when he left (Juneau). I think he’s still continued to put others ahead of himself and treats referees with respect, treats opponents with respect. I like all that.”