It’s been less than a year since the Slippery Rock men’s soccer team finished their year on a disappointing note. They walked off the pitch in McConnell Stadium into the offseason knowing that they wouldn’t see the field again until the next fall. It seemed like forever to wait.
How could the season have gone so quick? Better yet, how could it have ended with them only mustering six wins? Playing in the PSAC can sometimes leaves teams with those kinds of questions. Head coach Kevin Wilhelm knows this all too well.
Wilhelm is entering his fifth year as head coach of the team, but this isn’t even close to his first rodeo.
Wilhelm has had two previous stints at Slippery Rock as an assistant coach, and in one of his tenures, he brought home a PSAC title. He also helped bring one home as a player in the early 90’s. So, if anyone knows what the competition is like in the PSAC, it’s him.
There’s a respect factor that comes along with being in the conference so long. Wilhelm’s team, who had its fair share of players graduate, was picked to finish fourth in the PSAC West.
“We don’t really pay attention to that stuff, but really what that is, is people giving us credit for what the men’s soccer program does here and how we go out and we find talent,” Wilhelm said. “It’s kind of a confidence boost from the rest of the conference saying they’re doing things the right way.”
Slippery Rock opened their season on the road against Walsh University in Canton. This game served almost as the testing stick for the abilities of this young team to Wilhelm.
“Unfortunately, when the guys showed up to camp, I caught COVID-19 and missed just about seven days of the preseason training, so I was behind the curve when it comes to what everybody’s capabilities,” Wilhelm said. “There were a lot of mistakes that were made and have been corrected already, but it doesn’t mean they’ll never be made again.”
Unfortunately, the game didn’t go the way any of them planned. Walsh got the first point on the board just one minute into the game. Rabadan Villanueva tallied the goal for Walsh. The rest of the first half of play seemed to be fairly even, but The Rock was outmatched offensively. Slippery Rock only took three shots in the first half, while Walsh recorded six.
Eleven minutes into the second half, Leandro Louro put Walsh up by two goals. After scoring his first goal of the season, it took him only seven minutes to do so again. Louro received a pass from Peyton Barnes and was able to bury his second goal in under 10 minutes.
The Rock answered back five minutes later as Ramses Minaya scored his first goal of the season. But by that point, it was too late. Walsh scored one more goal in the final 12 minutes of the game to secure a 4-1 win.
While that wasn’t the way The Rock wanted to start, that first game did a lot. But also gave Wilhelm’s team a challenge. Let this play carry over or move on and focus on the next. They chose the latter.
The team has influx of youth this season, and a lot of it is on the defensive end.
“Our back four is completely new, we had five All-PSAC players last year and three were in our back four, so there’s a lot of youth there,” Wilhelm said. “There’s a lot of room for growth at this time.”
They had their home opener just two days later against the University of Findlay. It took Alex Plimmer just three minutes to score off of a pass from Ramses Minaya. The goal gave The Rock a much-needed spark coming off of a loss.
The most important play of the day came from goalkeeper Hossam Aly. In the first half, Findlay outshot The Rock 6-1. Bjoern Gilles got Findlay on the board with a penalty kick in the 29th minute.
But Aly was able to hold off their attack for the rest of the game. They had 21 shots and nine on goal in total, but Aly was able to record eight saves.
In the 52nd minute, Arturo Pla Hernandis scored on a penalty shot of his own. The goal turned out to be the difference in the game. The Rock was able to pull out a 2-1. To Wilhelm it’s always good to get that first win on the board.
“Any time you get results, it always will boost your confidence, but basically it helps along the project and it gives more belief in the project, and self-belief in each individual player in what their roles are,” Wilhelm said. “If you’re losing a lot of games because of youth and because of inexperience, confidence can drop and people can start questioning themselves.”
The Rock had a quick turnaround in which they lost the bout to Shippensburg on the road 3-0. In the game, the offense was only able to muster up eight total shots with only three on goal. All three of Shippensburg’s goals were scored by Seth Crabbe.
Their next game came against Shepherd at home, where they played to a tie. Pla Hernandis scored the lone goal for Slippery Rock. In the first four games of the season, a lot of what has been going has been trying to get players to be themselves and not who they are replacing. To Wilhelm, this takes a lot of focus.
“It’s a lot of time and repetition, the first thing is the PSAC and Div. II soccer, especially with who we compete against because we play a lot of private universities, there is a big difference between an 18-year-old young man who comes in as a freshman and a 23, 24-year-old freshman,” Wilhelm said. “Sometimes we play against 25, 26-year-old seniors, so it’s a lot of repetition and sometimes you’re tested under fire, and eventually you either sink or you swim.”
Wilhelm hopes that this team swims. But it won’t be an easy path, as they play in one of the toughest conferences in Div. II. The Rock will play Gannon, Mercyhurst and Seton Hill. All of them are the private universities that Wilhelm was referring to.
The Rock will return to action and continue to chip away at the project as Wilhelm would like to call it on Saturday against the University of the District of Columbia. They then open conference play a week later, and then the real fun begins.