Against a backdrop of a hill shrouded in monotonous brown brush, a team clad in long sleeved, black rain coats and neon yellow and pink pinnies frenetically runs through a drill. Save for the pitter-patter of rain falling from a drab white sky, the soccer players’ calling out of defensive assignments is the only noise in an otherwise silent Mihalik-Thompson Stadium.
“Four minutes!” Second year Head Coach Kevin Wilhelm shouts, instructing the group to run it through one last time before they are allowed to migrate to a warmer setting.
This unpleasant weather, in which the drizzle transitioned into the season’s first—albeit, light—snowfall of the season, is something Wilhelm and company would prefer to get accustomed to.
For one of its lowlights of the season, The Rock (8-7-2, 5-4-0 in PSAC) repaid the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown (2-11-1, 1-7-1) Wednesday for a home loss weeks earlier against the school, which hadn’t beaten SRU since 1996. The victory assured The Green and White a return to the postseason, capturing a berth in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference playoff tournament for the first time since 2015.
“This is playoff weather, man,” says Wilhelm, a bright green winter hat covering his eyebrows, the white serif “S” slightly off-center.
In the preseason, the coach, having gone 6-10-2 and without a road win the previous year, was reluctant to pin down a certain expectation for the upcoming campaign. He didn’t know quite what to expect out of a young group that had its leading scorer from 2018 sidelined indefinitely by a knee injury.
“I think we’re way ahead of schedule,” Wilhelm says now. “I think that, similar to last year, we’ve overachieved, especially with the numbers we’re getting from freshmen.”
Three of the team’s five top scorers are rookies. Alejandro Fernandez, a midfielder from Madrid, is second on the list with five goals, two assists, and 30 shots. Behind him is forward Ramses Minaya, of Santo Domingo, who has three goals and a pair of assists to his credit. Fifth is the team’s leader in assists—with four—midfielder Brian McCarthy, who had a career day in the most recent tilt with UPJ. He posted his first collegiate goal and three shots on the day.
“All of these guys have played all these minutes and gotten goals and their first assists and, hate to say it, but their first yellow card,” Wilhelm says. “Those are all experiences that they don’t have to go through now next year […] The conference changes so much year-to-year, that, to have so many freshmen and so many sophomores who are starting and getting points really puts us ahead of the curve.”
The offense passes efficiently before a player shoots and the ball deflects off the crossbar of the yellow football goalpost stationed above the net.
“New ball!” Yells Wilhelm, his hands tucked in the pockets of a black jacket.
Process. For some, this term is floated loosely. Every coach has a plan, it’s just that Wilhelm has shown strides in fielding since returning to his alma mater two summers ago. With an interim tag, he was taking over for a program that had gone 10-19-5 in the previous two seasons, a big difference from 2015’s 14-6, league-champion team.
For two years, he’s envisioned the mentality of the 2009 PSAC-winning squad, wanting to match it to the team now under his stewardship. To achieve this, recruiting is key. And Wilhelm has already proven he can find young players who are able to contribute early.
It’s not just the freshmen who pace the offense. Quick and diminutive, sophomore midfielder Abdallah Bangura provides the spark, leading the team with seven goals, two assists and 52 shots. Also a sophomore, defender Mo Kanani has netted three goals and dished an assist.
Wilhelm can describe the “dominant” style of play that he’s desired, no longer a proposal, but a reality. With 28 markers, the team has scored its most goals in a season since 2015, when it deposited 40.
“We’re extremely organized defensively,” says Wilhelm. “We’re one of the hardest working teams that you’ll ever play against and we do things multiple ways on the attack.”
The coach is confident in the ability of his team to create chances, whether with set pieces, counter attacks or ball control, and he employs one or more of these strategies based on an opponent’s tendency.
Mercyhurst, he points out, relies on possession to bolster its attack.
“We’re going into the [first-round] game [against the Lakers] understanding that we’re looking for our goals to come off counter attacks when they’ve overcommitted, and off of set pieces,” Wilhelm explains. “And we know we’re not going to have much of the ball. That’s just part of the process.”
Both matchups between the two schools this season have been 1-0 triumphs in the home team’s favor. Most recently, last Saturday, Slippery Rock was held to a meager two shots in a shutout loss in a visit to Erie.
Wilhelm makes sure to emphasize that it’s a full team effort, all they way from university administration to the athletic trainer treating players outside the lines. He commends the work ethic of graduate assistant coach Steven Rerick, who, during his playing career, made 36 starts at goalkeeper for The Rock, tallying 193 saves. Most importantly, Wilhelm lauds the leadership of the upperclassmen.
Senior goalkeeper Matt Hunsberger has started each game in goal, sporting a 0.95 goals allowed average, seven shutouts and 72 saves, enough for most in the PSAC. Fourth year defender Luke Picchi has registered two goals, one of which came in the second contest with UPJ, and one assist. Fellow defender and captain Anthony Werth, from down the road in Butler, has chipped in with three goals.
“It’s all about them. Realistically, it’s about their reflection when they’re my age to look back and say, ‘Regardless of what we wanted to get, my experience with Coach Wilhelm was fantastic. It was fun and competitive,’” Wilhelm says. “To me, you’ve got to pay the bills, but that [positive experience] is what’s better than the paycheck. That’s why I do this.”
The team sets up for sprints at the 40-yard-line, and Wilhelm increases the yardage by increments of five until his team is running, winded, to the goal-line.
When asked where he wants the program to be in two years, Wilhlem says, “I want this to be the norm, where we’re finishing in the top three of the PSAC, expecting to get to the playoffs. I think this season should be the measuring stick.”
The team will be the third seed in the West Division, traveling to Mercyhurst Tuesday.
“Every step counts!” Wilhelm urges the panting players, tired and cold.
The sun may be setting at 5 p.m. these days, but Wilhelm can hope The Rock men’s soccer team is just getting started.