After a ninth-place finish in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference standings a year ago, the Slippery Rock University men’s soccer team hopes to erase an unremarkable 2017 from its memory.
The team posted a 5-10-3 record last season, but has a brand-new look, as head coach for the previous two years Steve Small resigned in late June, making way for a familiar face to serve as interim head coach this fall.
Kevin Wilhelm, a former player here at SRU in the mid-90s, helped the program to a Western Pennsylvania Intercollegiate Soccer Conference crown in 1994 and was named All-WPISC the next season. Since ending his playing days, he has put 22 years of coaching experience at three levels under his belt. Wilhelm returns to Slippery Rock for a fourth time, having assisted in two stints Matt Thompson, the second of which included a PSAC championship in 2009. Under Wilhelm will serve first-year graduate assistant coach Steven Rerick, who started 36 games in goal for The Rock over four years.
The new head coach was pleased with the team’s effort during the offseason’s workouts.
“We had a very productive preseason training camp. The guys have worked extremely hard,” Wilhelm stated. “They’re dedicated to creating a new culture similar to the way I remember the program as a player and previously as a coach. All the things from them have been extremely positive and they’ve done everything I’ve asked of them.”
The team’s senior class, comprised of defenders Kenton Keeslar and Devin Hoffman and midfielders George Oakley and Justin Minda, has championship pedigree, as the four combined for 61 starts in SRU’s 2015 PSAC title run. Moreover, Keeslar was the only Rock player to start all 18 games last season and Oakley, who ranked second in the conference in assists, earned All-PSAC honors in 2017 and is the team’s leading returning scorer.
The roster has only two juniors, forward Luke Picchi, who played in 17 games last year, scoring two goals, and Matt Hunsberger, who played in goal in two shutout wins.
“The leadership from [the upperclassmen], with the way they conduct themselves, helping out the younger players, is just massive,” Wilhelm said. “The better they do their job with those leadership qualities, the better we’re going to perform this year.”
The seven-man sophomore class is made up of players who entered primarily as substitutes in 2017. Forwards Sean Tinney and Hayden Seifert appeared in 30 combined contests, with the former ending the season as the team’s third-highest scorer with a goal and four assists. Other notable second-year players are midfielders Cory Olix (twelve starts last year) and Hector Buchter (seven).
The program welcomed in a total of fourteen recruits, making the SRU squad one of the youngest in the league. The class includes defenders Ameer Caprini, a defender from Ambridge that combined for three State Cup championships with the Northern Steel and Steel Town Magic club teams, and Mohsen Kanani, who played at St. Joseph Almotran in Nazareth, Israel. Forward Alexander Vilchek, a Finest Fifteen, All-Section, and All-WPIAL 2A honoree in high school, and midfielder Danny Schearer, named All-State and All-WPIAL while at Pittsburgh Central Catholic, could contribute in front of the defense.
Though Wilhelm sees a similar dedication between the two, he makes a point of contrasting the 2009 conference title-winning squad and this year’s team, picked to finish near the bottom of the standings. “The difference between this team and that team is maturity level,” he said. “It’s a real learning process to get to that point, and a lot of those guys back then were juniors and seniors. Really, maturity, experience, and dedication to a specific system of play and specific standards of the program over a number of years [are what will get us to] that kind of result.”
The coach also praises the hard work and devotion he has seen out of his players.
“They’ve been 100% committed to making sure that all the details that I’m asking for in training sessions and games are being looked after. It’s that mentality and that work ethic that’s gonna pull us through being so young as a group,” Wilhelm said.
The Rock’s season kicks off on Thursday, August 30th in a road matchup against Tiffin University, picked to finish third in the Great Midwest Athletic Conference. The team will return to Slippery Rock two days later for a tilt with Lake Erie College, with a chance to match their entire home win total with a victory.