The rise to the top: A look back at the best season in Rock soccer history

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“You don’t need a lot of attention. You don’t need a lot of press.”

It’s not often that a team that wins 14 of 15 games at any point in a season is considered an underdog, but, even looking back, Mitch Walters makes certain to mention that the 2009 Slippery Rock men’s soccer team paid little mind to external judgements.

A foundation was set the season prior with a 14-7-1 record and an appearance in the NCAA Division II Tournament. Returning from that team were PSAC West Player of the Year Jeremy Deighton, the team’s leader in goals with 16 in 2008, and Toby Bowser, a first-team All-PSAC defender that tied a school record with 15 assists in a single season. First-team All-PSAC goalkeeper Greg Blum would stand in goal having made 103 saves the previous season.

A strong back four and stellar anchor in Blum provided whatever time needed for the attack to break through, even on its slow days. Other games, when the defense wasn’t able to make as large an influence, the offense, spearheaded by Deighton, could, as Wilhelm put it, score goals in bags.

Blum echoed this sentiment.

“If it [were] some games we had to defend a lot, we were committed to defending,” Blum said. “If we had to attack more, we kind of did what [we had to]. We were extremely organized and everybody was willing to do their part, whatever it was, to win.”

“From day one, we just had that feeling that we were going to be successful,” Iain Langstone, a senior forward that season, said. “Each time we stepped on the field, I had the mindset and the feeling that we were going to win the game.”

Deighton, who would end the season with a league-high of 21 goals and 49 points, had been dealing with a back injury during the entire preseason. It was only a day before the team’s first game that he was cleared to play, but Thompson and Wilhelm had no issue in incorporating him into the attack.

“Teams would sometimes try to out-possess us and keep us off the ball and we could counter-attack and we could play direct with bigger balls into Jeremy,” Wilhelm said. “He could hold it up. He could score off the head […] The team had the versatility, too, to be able to score off of set pieces and then keep the ball in good possession. It was just such a well-rounded group.”

Unexpectedly, the team began its campaign a night early after Salem International withdrew from a season-opening tournament hosted by Shippensburg. Nonetheless, The Rock, slotted 18th in the preseason poll, won its first season opener since 2006, 2-0, allowing the Raiders only three shots on goal.

Three days later, Thompson’s squad bowed to then-No. 24 Ashland University. Following that defeat, however, the Green and White wouldn’t drop a game for five weeks, defeating its next nine opponents. During that stretch, Blum would notch as many shutouts (6) as he allowed goals, while also making 39 saves. Also, each Deighton (9 goals, 2 assists), freshman midfielder Benjamin Lloyd (3 goals, 3 assists), and junior defender Toby Bowser (1 goal, 4 assists) helped direct the offense during the win streak.

SRU would dispatch two ranked conference foes that September—No. 16 California (Pa.) and No. 18 Mercyhurst—and climbed to as high as 10th in the national rankings.

“It’s almost like we knew we were going to win,” said Thompson, who coached the program for eight years. “I don’t know how to explain it. We would show up, we were confident, and the guys were prepared. We were ready.”

“As a player, you’re thinking you can’t be stopped,” said Langstone, who scored four goals and dished out two assists that season.

It was the Vulcans, in a rematch, that put an end to the winning streak in early October. Again, though, the team would respond with a run, victorious in five straight matches.

In the schedule’s next-to-last fixture, at Mercyhurst, No. 11 Slippery Rock scored in the first minute, but was called for four yellow cards and three red cards throughout the day. Within the contest’s first 10 minutes, Thompson was shown to the locker room, later to be joined by sophomore forward Kenneth Fultz before the first half concluded. Despite finishing the game with advantages in shots and shots on goal, The Rock lost both the game and the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference’s Western Division title to the Lakers, setting up the first of two postseason meetings with MU eight days later.

“What sticks out about that game [is] we lost, 2-1, playing down […] two men for a good chunk of the game,” Wilhelm recalled. “Even though we were down two guys, we were still running the game. We were still creating opportunities. We still had a good amount of the ball. We had every chance to make that a 2-2 game, even win it, being down that many players, which shows the caliber and focus of that group.”

The next week, for the second time in three games, Thompson and company paid a visit to Mercyhurst, this time for a conference semifinal. After trailing 1-nil for 54 minutes in that playoff game, Iain Langstone was able to find the back of the net. Anxiety heightened for both teams as the game continued through two overtime periods. It took an extra eight rounds of penalty kicks, but when all was said and done, The Rock won the shootout, 6-5, and set itself up to host the league championship game a few days later.

“The fire that was lit underneath us from that second-to-last game really inspired us and enabled us to push through that game,” Deighton said.

In a spirited atmosphere at what is now known as Mihalik-Thompson Stadium, No. 12 Slippery Rock upset No. 1 Millersville in front of over 1,200 fans. As he had all year, Deighton made sure his presence was felt, heading in the game’s first tally off of an assist from Fultz in the 31st minute. The Marauders’ goalie was ejected three minutes later for a handball out of the box on a Langstone breakaway attempt. With some help from Deighton, Langstone would net a goal early in the second period, providing some cushion that would eventually lead to SRU’s third-ever league title. The win, which gave The Rock a 17-3-1 record, matched a school record for wins in a single season.

“It was just one of those games where, if you were going to pick one game to watch all year, that would have been the one,” Wilhelm said. “For it to kind of come to that fruition, my personal experience, being a player and then having the opportunity to coach with Matt, I was elated, but I was also thankful that I was able to have that opportunity. I could coach another 10, 15 years, and never have that opportunity. All the pieces, all the recruiting, everything, has to fall in place.”

The reward for The Green and White was a fourth meeting with Mercyhurst, who came to Slippery Rock for an opening round game in the NCAA Division II Tournament. It was in this game that the Thompson’s team set a school record for wins in a season. Deighton recorded a hat trick with three headers, the last of which came only 1:32 before a 2nd overtime concluded. In the game, Blum also made a career-high 14 saves in helping to a 3-2 victory.

The only problem with the contest that it was the night cap, and No. 14 Charleston, The Rock’s next opponent, played earlier, giving the Golden Eagles more much needed rest.

“I remember going into training the next day, on Saturday, and the guys couldn’t move,” Thompson said. “Going into the Charleston game, I knew we were tired […] We just ran out of gas.”

The Rock led twice against Charleston in the Atlantic Region final, but the third-seeded opponent ended Slippery Rock’s season by the score of 3-2.

“Every game was fun, every game was exciting,” Wilhelm said. “There was some drama. But, just with our opponents there in the PSAC tournament being Millersville and Mercyhurst, […] it was just kind of setting that stage of who the premier programs were at that point in time in the PSAC.”

Since Slippery Rock won that playoff tournament eleven years ago, all but two PSAC finals have featured at least one of the three schools and eight league trophies have been distributed between the trio of programs.

“That was probably the toughest loss in my career,” Blum said. “We didn’t expect to lose. We had such a great year that everybody wanted to just keep on going […] [For Coach Thompson and Coach Wilhelm], it was a good way to go out.”

Wilhelm believes that, if the team had advanced past the University of Charleston in that second round, Slippery Rock had a favorable chance of reaching the national semifinals, at least.

Following the heart-wrenching loss in the NCAA Division II Tournament, up until the holidays, Wilhelm said, the expectation was that things would carry on the way they had the previous three seasons. It wasn’t to be, however. Thompson soon cleaned his office and headed south to national runner-up Lees-McRae College. Wilhelm also left to focus on club coaching.

“It really didn’t hit until Matt had an interview and, basically, liked the situation,” Wilhelm said. “He was going to a program that had very good funding and a nice location for his family. It just seemed he right choice, probably, for him in the bigger picture at that point in time.”

“If I could go back and do things, I probably would’ve ended up staying at Slippery Rock and trying to push on from where we left off,” Thompson said. “I just felt like I’d taken them as far as I could maybe. It was time to move on and move up the ladder.”

Still, a lot about Slippery Rock soccer can be told and understood from that championship season.

“As far as I’m concerned, that was just an extraordinary season; one that I don’t think [had] really been seen since the 70s and really, probably, hasn’t been seen since then,” Wilhelm said.

Deighton touched upon the fact that private schools such as Gannon and Mercyhurst, with more funding, have an easier time attracting players.

“I feel like in 2008 and 2009, we were able to set the standard of you don’t have to have full scholarships to do well in that conference,” said Deighton, who continued on to play for the Pittsburgh River Hounds for three years after graduating. “What you need is solid coaching and solid role players.”

“I think that [2009] season is kind of the season to beat for any future teams,” Blum said.

Blum, who would play for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds after graduating in 2010, earned NSCAA All-America and first-team All-Region honors. He also was a Daktronics second-team All-Atlantic Region honoree and was named All-PSAC for the second year in a row. The goalkeeper finished second in the conference in saves (97) and shutouts (8).

Junior defender Tom Pool, who played and started in 21 games, earned third-team NSCAA All-American, first-team NSCAA All-Region, and All-PSAC accolades. He finished the season with three goals and one assist.

Walters, who started all 23 games, accounted for two assists and one goal, and also earned NSCAA third-team All-Region honors,

Deighton earned a PSAC Athlete of the Year award for a second consecutive season and went on to play for the Riverhounds as well.

Thompson, before leading Lees McRae to an appearance in the NCAA Division II Tournament the next season, was named as the PSAC Coach of the Year for a third time.

Brendan is a senior converged journalism major entering his second year on The Rocket staff and his first year as assistant sports editor. Previously, he served as assistant campus life editor while also contributing to the sports section. After graduation, he hopes to cover sports for a newspaper or magazine.

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