Slippery Rock soccer team on a roll
Deer Lakes graduate Zach Hall wasn't even supposed to get a tryout on the Slippery Rock men's soccer team three years ago.
But when coach Michael Bonelli took over the program in July 2010, he decided to give Hall a chance, and the freshman earned the 25th spot on the roster.
Fast forward to 2013. Hall is a senior captain, the team's second-leading scorer and a major reason The Rock is 7-1-1 and ranked 15th in the nation in NCAA Division II.
“He's a different person,” Bonelli said of Hall, an outside midfielder who has three goals and three assists. “He put in the work, and he's become a great player. We laugh about it because he comes in as a freshman, and he can hardly pass the soccer ball. Now he's one of the better players on the roster.
“You have to do something better than everyone else, and for him, it's his work rate. He outworks everyone else on the field. He works defensively. He gets up and down (the field). He wins headers. He battles.”
Bonelli referred to Hall as the “poster boy” for a program that has re-established itself as a national power during the coach's tenure. Slippery Rock is 18-5-7 over the past two seasons and is unbeaten in nonconference play. It hasn't lost a regular-season road game since Oct. 10, 2011.
“These past couple of years it seems like we keep getting better and better,” Hall said. “This year feels like it's going to be the year for us.”
The Rock lost 1-0 to Mercyhurst in the 2012 PSAC title game, missing out on an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament. The setback has clearly affected the players.
“We have more fire this year,” said junior defender Josh Brake, a Mars graduate. “We tasted it. You were so close, and it's taken away from you. This year we want even more. We want to win the PSAC and make it to the national championship.”
Bonelli stressed that the team's success is part of a “total culture” in which players become invested in the program, and the coaches help prepare them for the post-Slippery Rock world through networking and internships. As Bonelli puts it, “It's about so much more than soccer.”
On the field, a byproduct of Bonelli's team-first blueprint is a balanced scoring attack that makes it troublesome for opposing teams to defend The Rock. Nine players have accounted for Slippery Rock's 21 goals this season, with nobody scoring more than four. Since Bonelli took over, the highest single-season goal total was six.
If Hall keeps up his pace, he might top that total, but his value isn't just about goals.
“He's not the most talented player on the field,” Bonelli said of Hall. “Not even close. But he's one of the hardest workers, and he puts himself in the right spots.
“He's been here from the beginning. He's been through the bumps and bruises. He's an unbelievable human being. He does everything right on and off the field.”
Jeff Vella is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @JeffVella_Trib.