It is a new day for Pitt Women’s soccer. But put a heavy emphasis on the word ‘new’.
As the new freshman class arrives on campus for the first time this week to begin orientation and move-in, high above at Ambrose-Urbanic Field, the Panthers are already into week seven of training. For the vast majority of those players, Pitt is just as new to them as it is to the other students arriving at the dorms with their bean bag chairs and lava lamps still fresh out of the box.
The 2019 Panthers begin their second season under Coach Randy Waldrum with 21 new players, 17 of whom are freshmen.
Considering the lack of experience on the team; considering the ever-daunting task of competing in collegiate women’s soccer’s best conference – the ACC; considering last year’s dispiriting 4-12-1 record; you might expect tempered expectations and some mild trepidation from Pitt’s more experienced players. But that’s not the vibe here at all.
“A new culture is forming. Everybody is hungry; everybody wants to play. That’s definitely different from my previous years here.”
Juliana Vasquez might be one of the few that would know what ‘previous years’ looked like. The midfielder is one of only 10 returning players this season, as most of the team departed via graduation or transfer in order that Coach Waldrum could bring in the right players to fit what he was looking for in 2019. Vasquez, from Columbus Ohio and Orlando, Florida, will be one of the senior leaders tasked with helping set the tempo and expectation for the young Panther side this season. She already likes what she sees.
“We’re definitely young, but we have a lot of talent. We have a lot of hard-working players.”
Vasquez has been named a captain for the 2019 season. Co-captain Hollie Olding, a transfer from the University of Kentucky, concurs with her teammates’ assessment that this Pitt team has a greater degree of dedication and direction than her previous team.
“Everyone out here is doing extra work before and after training. That’s something that you don’t really see with most college teams,” Olding says.
Vasquez, Olding, and the other women on the team arrived to start preparing for the season – with running, strength conditioning, and on-the-pitch training – on June 24. Olding explains, “Most NCAA women’s teams just spend a week getting fit. We spent six.”
Both Vasquez and Olding certainly possess the kind of drive and desire you hope will infect all of your other players, making it apparent why Coach Waldrum appointed them captains. When asked if it was boring being on campus all summer with nothing to do, Vasquez replies, “I love it. I just want to run, train, eat, go to bed; run, train, eat … that is my life!”
Olding, meanwhile, is driven to achieve by some seriously lofty goals. “I would like to make all ACC or all American. My other ambition is to go pro and play on the international level,” she says. Olding came over to the United States from London, where she spent her youth career with Chelsea football club. She was on the England U-19 squad that competed at the Euros, but missed a lot of on-field time in 2018 with a groin injury. She says someday, she’d like to play professionally for Chelsea, like her heroes Frank Lampard and Claude Makelele, and for England like her idol, legendary goalscorer Kelly Smith.
The big question for Pitt this season, is, of course, whether this bevy of new players will translate to an improved win-loss record over last season. That, and whether they can keep their heads above water in the ACC, the most accomplished conference in all of NCAA women’s soccer. The Panthers have not won a match in ACC league play since 2016.
Pitt will start the season with a number of non-conference opponents who should allow them to get their bearings before the difficult in-conference ACC season starts. Their first match is against Loyola Marymount University, at home in Pittsburgh this Friday at 7 PM. Their ACC opponents include five teams that are nationally ranked – #25 Virginia Tech, #23 Wake Forest, #21 NC State, #2 Florida State, and #1 North Carolina. The Lady Tarheels and Lady Seminoles faced each other in the 2018 College Cup Final last season, with UNC hoisting the trophy.
For Olding and Vasquez, they look forward to the challenge of playing in the best conference in all the land. Vasquez thinks the young squad will be up to the task. “I’m excited for the newbies to get to play against some of the best players in the world with FSU and UNC. I’m always happy to play them, and compete against the best players in the world.”
Olding was even more optimistic about their chances. “We’re a new era. We want to show teams out there that we can compete with the best. I think we’re going to shock a few teams in the ACC this year.”
Of course, none of that means Pitt is overlooking their first opponent, Loyola Marymount, or taking them lightly. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my first four years here, it’s to always respect the opposition,” says Vasquez.
“We’re going to treat every match like an ACC match and come out, guns blazing.”