When taken into account, the handful of months gone by for the men’s soccer team have acted as both a farewell for a foursome of familiar faces, and as a reintroduction for a devoted Rock graduate deeply ingrained in the alma mater’s program.
The team was caught off-guard in late June when their previous coach put his office belongings in a box, but having put up a pedestrian-at-best .368 winning percentage over the two seasons prior, it thought an offseason coaching change was for the best. For four seniors who had helped to raise a PSAC Championship trophy in 2015, those few years were all the more frustrating. With piling defeats came a forming rift in comradery and a waning of enjoyment in the sport for some.
“The last two years were not fun at all,” senior midfielder George Oakley. “We didn’t seem to bond together or jell together as a team particularly well. I just wanted to enjoy playing soccer again.”
Added defender Kenton Keeslar, “[Our] sophomore and junior years, we were more divided as a team. My freshman year, we were all really close, for the most part. Then, sophomore and junior year, we all kind of got angry with each other because of how things were going.”
Along with fellow seniors Justin Minda and Devin Hoffman, Oakley and Keeslar desired game planning and organization, something they felt was lacking during the previous coach’s term.
“We wanted someone who would actually give us a way to play,” Oakley said. “[We wanted] an identity and more of an idea than we had in the past in how we’re going to win a game, how training is going to be, and how we’re going to develop our game.”
After interim coach Kevin Wilhelm’s appointment a little over two weeks later, the quartet of seniors spoke to him about what they had in mind for their final season in a green and white uniform. All were meeting their coach for the first time, except for Hoffman, who had played for Wilhelm in his early teens.
Beginning in summer training, Wilhelm admired the skill and a positive attitude that, much like other leadership qualities, made the squad a more cohesive unit and rubbed off on the more numerous underclassmen.
“They were hungry for structure. They were hungry for ideas. They wanted not necessarily just to win, but they wanted to improve and work for each other […] I could tell these guys would run up and down Rock Hill 20 times without question,” the coach said. “Obviously, I didn’t have them do that. But, that was the mentality when they first stepped on the field.”
Once the schedule opened, the team exceeded expectations, taking its lumps with the effects of injury—entering the West Chester game, the team didn’t have a true forward on the field—and inexperience but holding onto a chance for a postseason appearance until the season’s final week. It was at low points in the campaign, such as decisive losses at Gannon, Bloomsburg, and eventual PSAC Champion-Millersville, that the veteran leaders took control.
“I think having a young team, you can do a lot in training and a lot in preseason. But a lot of the worry comes through the season itself. It was big for us to get our identity down early,” Keeslar stated.
Said Minda, “I think we just prepared them the best we could by telling them how much of a difference PSAC play is from every other game. It’s not always the prettiest soccer that wins.”
The four took pride in building a culture and leaving the program in a better position than it was, all while topping the team’s win total from the last two years. They were able to look to Wilhelm’s previous ups and downs, both as a player and coach with Slippery Rock, hoping to be a building block in an eventual conference title run. Wilhelm sees the seniors’ handling of hardship as defining of their commitment to the program and as helpful for the program’s future.
“It shows how much they really care about the program,” Wilhelm said. “The last couple years aside, they went through so much adversity this year […] That type of adversity doesn’t help you this year, but it’s going to help us down the road. These guys did a great job of dealing with it and showing the rest of the underclassmen how to deal with it. Seeing how much fun they were having, it actually made me feel younger again.”