Following a hectic 2018 campaign, the Slippery Rock University men’s soccer team will kick off competition in a new-look PSAC on September 5. The team was chosen to finish fourth in the West Division this season.
The program graduated the only remaining members of its 2015 PSAC Championship-winning squad, and the team, much like last year, will be made up mostly of inexperienced talent.
After shedding his interim tag and being hired as the program’s full-time head coach in December, Kevin Wilhelm is excited to have the opportunity to construct the program to echo what it was when he was an assistant on The Rock sidelines a decade ago.
“[Last season] was a long process as far as trying to do things for the program and trying to be competitive at the same time,” Wilhelm said. “But [having job security] has also given me time to put forward a bigger picture, long-term progression type of approach.”
Having said that, the second-year coach looks ahead to instilling a high-energy, assertive style of play and a standard for the student-athletes that he wants on the field. The focal point for this season is for the product on the field to resemble the manner that he wants Slippery Rock soccer to be recognized for, he said. He wants to see his offense be quick and creative and break teams down while keeping possession. Simply put, he prefers his defense to be aggressive.
“If we’re playing an aggressive style that’s fun to watch and is very proactive, then that’s what I would consider a successful season,” Wilhelm said, adding that the team’s success in his previous stint at the school was the byproduct of a bigger picture and players that checked off boxes in both athletic and academic areas.
Building the mentality this time around will be more challenging, he admitted, citing a lack of upperclassmen. The Green and White will field three seniors this year, each on a different level of the field.
Goalkeeper Matt Hunsberger started all 18 games between the sticks last season, making 82 saves on the way to a 1.36 goals allowed average. Behind him, Derek Hoffman and Hossam Aly, both freshman, will fight for playing time.
“To have a senior to show some of the work ethic and have some leadership quality around [the two freshman goalkeepers], it doesn’t even have to by spoken word as long as he’s demonstrating by his play and the way he goes about practices. It goes a long way for setting the tone,” Wilhelm said of his goalie.
Defender Anthony Werth, from nearby Butler, was one of only four players to start all 18 games in the season prior and was named as the team’s captain for this year.
“It’s almost like having another coach on the field,” Wilhelm said of Werth. “It’s just a matter of him getting his thoughts across to them and taking my instruction.”
Forward Luke Picchi, who tied for the team lead in goals last fall with three, is described by Wilhelm as someone who “works his socks off each game and has the type of mentality that can matriculate through the group by example.”
Having averaged below one score per game in 2018, the same pair of strikers appear to head The Rock’s attack along with Picchi once again. Sophomore Alexander Vilchek, a 6’3” center, led last year’s squad in points (8), shots (34), and shots on goal (17). Beside him will be a second-year winger in Abdallah Bangura.
Though familiar with each other, each of the three dealt with bumps and bruises as last season waned. Vilchek played through a leg injury as Bangura and Picchi were held out of multiple competitions with head injuries. At one point, Wilhelm had to start defender Devin Hoffman as a forward because of the lack of depth.
Wilhelm credits the ailments up front and immaturity as the reasons his offense faltered, limping to a 6-10-2 record (4-6-1 in-conference) and missing out on the conference’s postseason tournament.
Wilhelm says the continuity and chemistry have improved, and that the trio has combined with the ball and created chances better than it did last year.
The new conference alignment, in which the PSAC has been split into east and west divisions, is another challenge Wilhelm says his team will face. Rather than once in the regular season, each team will now face divisional opponents twice, with both getting a home game.
Comprised of ten players, this year’s recruiting class was Wilhelm’s first at Slippery Rock, one that he thinks has a consolidated talent base.
When asked which of the newcomers have made a name for themselves this preseason, Wilhelm listed midfielders Alejandro Fernandez, native of Calle Baezuela, Spain, and Ata Toramanoglu, of Etobicoke, Ontario. Wilhelm also picked up a midfielder with previous experience in junior Alex Okuma, who appeared in 17 games at Louisiana College before transferring.
“Long term, I see [Alejandro] being a standout in the conference,” he said. “He’s at that level, where he’s that strong of a player.”
He added, “Every one of these [recruits] is an intelligent kid. Every one of these kids is a competitor. And those are two of the biggest qualities. Yeah, they can play soccer. They’re decent players, too. But those two aspects build the [team-oriented] culture we want.”
Though it may be a project, Wilhelm is prepared to lead his alma mater and focus on the task at hand.
“We want it to pay off as quickly as possible, but we have to be patient.”