Coming off a season with multiple program firsts in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), the University of Pittsburgh men’s soccer team looks to build off its momentum under college coaching icon Jay Vidovich.
The 2017 season had breakthrough moments for the program, including first wins over ranked opponents since 2008 after collecting victories against No. 7 Notre Dame, No. 13 Columbia and No. 21 Syracuse.
The Panthers’ wins against Syracuse and Notre Dame were also their first conference victories since joining the ACC in 2013.
Despite the positive strides, the Panthers were humbled a bit down the stretch, losing its final three games, including its rematch with Notre Dame in the ACC Conference tournament.
Now, can Pitt take the next step?
Can Vidovich take this program to an elite level where they’re in the thick of the race of ACC teams bidding for NCAA tournament bids every year?
Vidovich, his coaching staff and returning players know there is work to be done in order to get to that point.
“I just make sure that they understand what’s in front of them more than they have before,”Vidovich, said at the start of the preseason. “That they know what they’re working for, that they have a big project ahead of them, that the difference that they made in the last year was not enough and they’ve got some work to do. So, they’re coming in knowing what type of work they have to do and they’ve been pretty self-motivated.”
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Pitt returns 13 players from a year ago, including Craig Bair, Robby Dambrot, Alexander Dexter, Joshua Gaspari, Edward Kizza, Fiorre Mane, Tom Moxham, Alex Peperak, Javi Perez, Marcony Pimentel, Jacob Rooth, Chad Stout and Tim Townsend.
Perez is coming off a season in which he earned All-ACC Second Team honors, while both Dexter and Kizza were named to the ACC All-Freshman Team.
“Their expectations are that last year was not good enough,” said Vidovich. “We can play, but we’ve seen our mistakes – how at the start of last season we lost two games that could’ve put us in the tournament. We saw how if we don’t follow our code of ethics and culture that it puts us down players and puts a tremendous demand on our other players – it cost us injuries at the end of the season. So, hopefully the way we conduct ourselves on and off the pitch is such that they understand that we’re chasing trophies.”
Maybe what’s been most impressive has been Vidovich’s ability to bring in high level players as the Panthers also welcome 12 newcomers into the fold, with a mix of freshmen and transfers that should have an immediate impact.
“The expectation is that we’ve brought these young men in to win,” Vidocich said. “Not just to get our first ACC win or something like that, but to be a part of the ACC, which means chasing trophies and chasing a national championship. Yeah, we’re going to be young and inexperienced, but we’ve got new talent and the culture is improving so we’re ready to go.”
Pitt’s additions include Rodrigo Almeida, Facundo Costantini, Anthony Harding, Johan Penaranda, Peter Prescott, Jose Luis Sena Arbona, Nyk Sessock, Alexander Steinbach, Alec Townsend, Chandler Vaughn, Jackson Walti and Shane Wiedt. Prescott, who comes from Creighton, and Wiedt, coming from Akron, both have made NCAA College Cup runs with their former teams, experience that could be useful if the Panthers reach their ultimate goal.
Besides adding talent on the field, Vidovich has also brought in a new member to the coaching staff, one that understands a little bit about the improving Pitt culture.Bryce Cregan, who was named the student assistant coach for the 2018 season, joins the staff after spending the last two years as a player and captain for the Panthers.
This year’s captains will be both a new and familiar face for Panther fans, as Wiedt and Perez will be tasked with leading the team.
“Javi [Perez] is just one of the smartest soccer players I’ve ever been around,” said Vidovich. “He has good game, he knows what it takes to win and I think he’s been an unbelievable role model in his injured state – coming back from an ACL tear last year. His work ethic and desire to get better and to push the envelope here has been tremendous. Shane [Wiedt] is a newcomer. Shane is on the quiet side but he wants to win and he’s a warrior. So, I think that experience will help us out as well.”
However, the responsibility of leading the team won’t all fall on the shoulders of just two men.
“We’ll have a leadership contingent that will include Craig Bair, Robby Dambrot, Edward Kizza and Peter Prescott along with our captains,” Vidovich said. “Those are some of our more mature guys.”
That group will have to lead the Panthers into what looks to be a grueling 2018 schedule. Of Pitt’s 17 regular season matchups, 12 teams competed in last year’s NCAA College Cup, including Akron and North Carolina, who both advanced to the Final Four. Seven of the Panthers’ opponents finished in the top 15 of the 2017 RPI while nine closed out the season ranked in the top 25 of the United Coaches Poll.
Pitt’s conference schedule alone features eight teams who made appearances in the 2017 College Cup.
“There hasn’t been a College Cup without at least two of us [ACC teams] in I don’t know how many years,” said Vidovich. “That type of quality of players and facilities and coaches, and with Pitt now trying to build this program, it’s a tremendous challenge. I think our guys are starting to understand that, but none of my guys have much experience playing against an ACC schedule, so nobody really knows what they’re getting in to. But, they got a taste of it and they understand that the ACC is really good.”
Even with a challenging schedule ahead and an influx of new players, Vidovich is confident the 2018 season can be a successful one.
“These guys have been brought in to win games,” Vidovich said. “I think they understand what the expectations are and we’re going to push for that. If we can keep our guys healthy and get our top group out there it should be a fun season with a lot of quality teams coming here to the Petersen Sports Complex. It should be great for our fans.”
The Panthers open the season on Friday at 8 p.m. against Colgate, at home as part of a a doubleheader with the women’s team who take on Kent State at 5 p.m.
Very special thanks for Julie Jurich / Pitt Athletic Department for contributions to his feature.