Lehigh's South Side Boosters

By J.F. Pirro

If you can picture this, 63-year-old Chip Walakovits is the South Side (Lehigh University) Boosters’ cheerleader. He’s the one who makes his way down the grandstand and asks for an “L,” then an “E,” an “H” and an “I” and so on like he initiated in a 2010 NCAA Division I-AA first-round playoff football game at Northern Iowa. It worked. Lehigh won, 14-7.

“We were part of the 1,000 or so Lehigh fans who traveled there,” he says. “Everyone else at the stadium was wondering, ‘What the heck?’ But our team recognized us after the game. They were appreciative.”

The South Side Boosters is a unique athletic support club that follows and encourages Lehigh athletic endeavors and helps develop bonds between the university and the community. The South Side Boosters began as Lehigh wrestling supporters. In 1972, while attending a team banquet, a photographer from the then-Bethlehem Bulletin was snapping a picture of them and asked what they were doing there – who are you? “Well, we’re the South Side Boosters,” they said. The first road trip (1973) was to Penn State for a wrestling match.

Though there are no official ties to the university other than its unwavering support, Lehigh football coach Andy Coen honored the Boosters last year. The team signed and presented the club with a football and this past February the Boosters were given the Golden Circle Award, an actual Lehigh helmet in a case.

“Our calling card is ‘Take the bus, and leave the driving to us,’” says officer Lenny Barkis. Barkis, a retired Air Force veteran, found his way onto Lehigh’s South Side campus in 1975 when his wife, Jo, began working at the bookstore. They became friendly with other then-boosters, and by 1978, they signed on as members at their first tailgate. Quickly, Barkis became involved in convincing the club to donate $5,000 to help build the new football complex, Goodman Stadium.

Before the longstanding annual football rivalry between Lehigh and Lafayette, this year on November 17, the boosters host a Thursday night pep rally. Coen brings his team after practice. Lehigh’s Marching Band, Marching 97, plays fight songs and players even get in on the action.

But it’s not just football that the South Side Boosters support. This year, it donated $1,000 to Marching 97 to help with new uniforms. They are also helping to back a men’s basketball education day when the team invites Bethlehem youth to a game to begin developing a future fan base. The club is helping pay for transportation.

Small gestures go a long way, too. Sometimes after a men’s or women’s basketball practice, the boosters will have a luncheon spread ready. They invite the men’s basketball team to a football tailgate. They’ll attend a women’s volleyball game or a baseball game.

Its biggest all-sport event, however, is its annual banquet in April. There, the boosters recognize some 15 senior athletes.

The boosters have donated to Lehigh’s Athletic Partnership annually at a clip of anywhere between $2,000 and $4,000.

Perhaps the group’s relevance can be measured in Lehigh’s recent on-field success. Last year alone, the football, men’s soccer, men’s and women’s basketball, men’s lacrosse and women’s softball teams all won Patriot League titles, automatically qualifying them for their respective NCAA Tournaments. Football advanced to the tournament’s third round at North Dakota State. Lacrosse, which ranked as high as No. 5 in the nation, dropped a heartbreaker, 10-9 to Maryland. The men’s basketball team upset super-power Duke in the tournament’s first round. “There were t-shirts made with the score (75-70), and they were worn all over campus,” Barkis says.

Stellar individual athletes have also peaked in their respective sports. In August, baseball alum Matt McBride, a Liberty High product, made his Major League Baseball debut with the Colorado Rockies. Will Rackley, a 2011 alum, is a lineman with the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars. The Philadelphia Eagles continue to give Lehigh the nod and hold its training camp here.

Oh, the South Side Boosters have their fun, too. The most popular drink on the sometimes 7 a.m. road-game bus departures and also at home tailgates is Barkis’ Bloody Mary. Jo pickles spicy green string beans for the twist. “She’s made 17 jars for the coming season,” he says.

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