It's unfair to evaluate a college program's season to date after watching it suffer its most lopsided loss since 2003. When Hilbert was stomped 10-0 by Medaille at the Hawks' home field in a Buffalo Cup match, it was undoubtedly the lowest point of the season for first-year head coach Selim Talbi.
"I told my players that we played a great team, and we need to understand that in that kind of situation, we need to stay together," Talbi said following the match.
"I felt that, in the first half, [we] gave up on some situations. Against a good team, you cannot give up on set pieces, you cannot give up on transition from offensive to defensive situations. It's a tough moment for the program, a tough moment for the players."
Taking a step back from Tuesday's result, the Hawks are in the middle of a transition period. Previous coach Jeff Panik left on his own terms after a 4-11-2 season, and Talbi - a native of France who's coached at Empire United over the last few seasons - was brought in to steer Hilbert to new heights. But he was officially announced in March, had limited recruiting time and brought in just two freshmen.
While he's essentially inheriting a team, the new gaffer is confident his side can earn results against lower-table foes in the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference; D'Youville, Pitt-Greensburg and Pitt-Bradford are all still win-less on the year but ahead on the Hawks' schedule.
But against opponents like Micky Blythe's new-look Mavericks, who just beat defending-champion Mount Aloysius last weekend, Hilbert has the tendency to anticipate defeat at the first sign of trouble.
"When my players are confident - when they understand that we are not high school soccer or travel soccer and kicking the ball [long] is not successful at this level now as it might have been in the past - we settle the ball, find players in the middle, combine two or three short passes and after find a runner," said Talbi, referring to Hilbert's playing style against weaker foes.
"I do believe that sometimes my players might subconsciously put pressure on themselves against a team that's supposed to be better than us."
Tails between their legs, the Hawks will have a few days to recover before visiting Penn State Altoona, a side that just beat Pitt-Bradford, 9-0.
Can Hilbert piece together a performance that will quickly allow them to forget Tuesday's trouncing? Talbi thinks his team has the makeup to do so - and even reach the postseason. After all, last year's 3-5-1 conference mark was good enough for the Hawks to sneak into the AMCC playoffs as the No. 6 seed.
"We have the courage, the speed, technical ability, stamina in the middle, strength in the back," he said. "We just need to believe in that and not clear the ball all the time.
HILBERT MEN'S SOCCER - Early season outlook
2015 record: 4-11-2 overall, 3-5-1 in AMCC, lost in first round of playoffs to La Roche
2016 record: 2-6 overall, 0-2 in AMCC
AMCC Preseason Poll: Picked to finish seventh
Head coach: Selim Talbi, first season
Who's gone: Matt Buehlmann, Austin Mathis and Jon Davison were the only three starters to leave from last year's team.
Who's new: Bergum's arrival from ECC figured to offset the production lost to Davison's graduation, while backup goalkeeper Brandon Henry's arrival gave Talbi some insurance behind starting goalkeeper Tyler Valentine. Dan Pulaski returns to the squad after not playing the last two years. Freshman Paul Caterina, an Allegany-Limestone alum, sees minutes up top.
Top players: Hilbert's spine is pretty strong - Garrett Rehner is a no-nonsense center back who is an asset when fit, while Matt Barth and Pulaski can be effective ball winners and distributors out of the midfield. Up front, Travis Hicks and ECC transfer Wade Bergum are both blessed with size-speed combinations to surprise defenses.
Breakout player: Pulaski's return to the program boosts the midfield. He's a hard worker, strong in the tackle and able to get forward. If he's able to settle down his fellow midfielders and exercise a little patience in possession, good things could lie ahead.
Unheralded contributor: Nick Rodriguez is quick and steady as a starting outside back, and in games where Hilbert is on the front foot, the senior from Lackawanna can surge forward with the attack.
BN Soccer likes: Rehner. His fitness is in question right now, but he's a competitor who doesn't back down defensively.
Why Hilbert might struggle...: They just lost 10-0. You don't have to talk to them about struggling. Another trip to the playoffs would be a terrific finish for the Hawks.
Big matches: It will be a tall task for Hilbert to pull points from games vs. Penn State Altoona, Penn State Behrend and Mount Aloysius, but if they beat the three win-less teams, the biggest match is on Senior Day, a 3:15 p.m. home game on Oct. 8 against La Roche. Three points there could solidify their place as a low seed in the AMCC Tournament.
[This piece originally contained an error saying that previous Hilbert head coach Jeff Panik had not been welcomed back. He actually left on his own terms, the school's athletic department noted.]
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