“It’s just a matter of inches and referee decisions,” Kevin Wilhelm said.
Having rounded out his second season as head coach of the Slippery Rock University men’s soccer team, he feels that, if not for the imperial system measurement and official judgments, The Green and White’s season may not have ended in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) tournament quarterfinals in Erie.
Less than three minutes before the end the first period of the playoff matchup with Mercyhurst, a Slippery Rock breakaway was whistled offsides. Wilhelm disputes that the scoring chance was at least three yards onside.
Moments out of the intermission, the Lakers were given a penalty kick and another call, or lack thereof, went against The Rock, this time tilting the scoreboard in the host’s favor.
“We all stepped out of the box and left two [Mercyhurst] players who were in offsides positions,” Wilhelm said. “And, even though the linesman flagged it for offsides, the referee came over and overruled him saying they didn’t interfere with the play.”
However, Wilhelm said, at the beginning of the season, he wasn’t even sure that his team would be competing in November with a chance to win the league.
“The whole season, even going into the playoff game, was a kind of a step ahead of where I expected it to be,” Wilhelm said.
Attaining an 8-9-2 final record and a berth in the postseason, Wilhelm’s squad ran through its most successful campaign since 2015.
It shut out California (Pa.), a program the coach considers to be the team’s main state school rival in the Western Division, in both meetings. It took Gannon, a team still alive in the national tournament in December, to overtime. It downed both Mercyhurst and Seton Hill, teams that were ranked nationally at points in the schedule, at home. Finally, it propelled itself into the playoffs with a critical win at Pitt-Johnstown late in the schedule.
Despite a faltering offense in its final two contests, the team put its best attack forward in four years. In a single game against Shepherd early in the schedule, Slippery Rock netted seven goals. Its 24 shots were the eighth-most in a single game since 2005.
Wilhelm’s young roster showed up big throughout. The freshman grouping alone accounted for over 1/3 of the team’s 30 total goals. Each of the team’s top five leading scorers were either first- or second-year players.
The Rock looks to the future with scorers such as sophomore Abdallah Bangura (7 goals, 2 assists) and freshman Alejandro Fernandez (5 goals, 2 assists), not to mention sophomore Alex Vilchek, who missed the season with a knee injury.
At this time last December, Wilhelm had just shed his interim tag. He’d been named the program’s third head coach in five years. Athletic Director Paul Lueken and the school administration chose him, desiring a sense of stability.
“They wanted something that would represent the university well, meaning showing, not necessarily wins and losses, but competitiveness and a good culture behind the scenes,” Wilhelm said.
With the results, Wilhelm has demonstrated that the program is trending upwards.
“Now that that plan is in motion, we can kind of streamline it and make it just a little bit more particular to what we want to do,” Wilhelm said. “I think we proved that, when we play at our best soccer, when everyone is on the top of their game, we can compete with the top programs.”