In the opening minute of Pitt’s first NCAA tournament match in 54 years, played before a packed, standing-room only crowd of 1,321 fans at Ambrose Urbanic Field, holding midfielder Jackson Walti hesitated when he was trying to navigate the ball away from Lehigh’s Josh Luchini, and found himself a beaten man.
This gave Luchini, the sophomore forward from North Allegheny, an opportunity to dribble deep into the box with all kinds of space in front of him. Luchini got to the edge of the six yard box with Pitt’s goalkeeper Arie Ammann coming out to close down the angle on what would be the game’s first shot attempt.
Ammann got enough on the ball to deflect it high into the air, and as it came down into the box, Pitt’s defenders scrambled back to clear it away from danger before Luchini could get another chance on the rebound.
“It was a little bit of nerves,” Walti would say in his post-match meet-up with the media. “It took us, it took me, a moment to get into the match.”
While Pitt had some early nerves, Lehigh had a missed early opportunity.
“It’s real important when have early chances, and you will, it’s central that you take advantage of them. It would have changed the game for us,” Dean Koski, Lehigh’s long-time coach said.”I don’t fault Josh there. He did what he had to do, and the keeper got a hand on it. You want to score those. In games like this, you not going to get that many chances, Particularly on the road. We were really frustrated, on behalf of Josh, but I don’t think we shook that off very well.”
Walti and his teammates brushed aside that early gaffe, were glad to avert danger, but stuck to their mindset and the confidence that they’ve built during the course of this season, and which their coach Jay Vidovich has methodically instilled during the course of his four seasons since coming to Pitt.
It’s a winning mindset.
One that had Walti firmly believing that they were the better team and they would dictate the terms of the match.
After all, arriving in its first NCAA tournament since the Lyndon B. Johnson administration as a top-four team in the ACC, the toughest conference in the college soccer landscape, this Pitt team was determined to make a statement on Thursday night. They wanted to show they were the superior side against the Patriot League champs, and win its elusive first-ever NCAA tournament match.
“From a soccer standpoint, we knew we were the better team. They weren’t going to come up, and press us high, or out play us, but they could win. But only if we beat ourselves,” Walti added. “So, we were going to minimize our mistakes and play our soccer.”
From that point forward, Pitt pretty much did that.
Pitt methodically started to take hold of possession, playing it patiently through its back line in the first 10 minutes or so.
Finally, when they delivered a ball into the box — it came in the form of its most lethal 1-2 combination, from the tandem of Alexander Dexter and Edward Kizza in the 13th minute.
Dexter received a long, diagonal ball to the left side the attacking third, and the play making left winger took a run to the end line, then delivered a cross through a cluttered group of Lehigh players that were trying to clog the lanes.
Dexter still found room to get the ball into the goal box, where keeper Will Smith was beaten to the ball by Kizza, who did what he does best — used some clever footwork to put the ball into the back of the net.
“We have a very good connection,” Kizza said after the match about the success he and Dexter have had the past two seasons. “We’re on the same page. I was going to be there, and he put it right where it needed to be.”
Taking the early 1-0 lead allowed Pitt to further impose its will on the match.
“It forced them (Lehigh) to play a little bit. Make them step up a little bit more,” Walti added. “It gave us a bit more space — and more goals.”
One more goal would come, and it came 30 minutes later, in the 43rd minute when Josh Hesson, who came into the match a short while earlier as a sub, took a pass after a quick restart and alertly made a run deep into the left side of the box nearly to the end line. Hesson then cut back a low, piercing through ball that defender Bryce Washington connected on, as he made a perfectly timed run into the box.
Two goals on similar balls in from the left side were finished with precision — and Pitt carried a two-goal lead, and momentum of the match into the half.
“It would have been a little bit different halftime if it was 1-0,” Vidovich said. “A one-touch finish at the end of that one — it was timing. Fantastic time to find a goal. And to manufacture it off a restart was great.”
Both veteran coaches were thinking the same thing.
“In college, Division one soccer, the margins are very slim. Knowing they scored early, that was a little bit of a shock to us. We had to regroup. We did a bit, but the goal that really hurt us, was that one before halftime,” Koski said. “To get out 1-0 at halftime we could regroup. But, being down 2-0, it was little bit harder.”
— Pitt Men's Soccer (@Pitt_MSOC) November 22, 2019
In the second half, with Pitt unable to put the match away, as Lehigh’s goal keeper Will Smith came up with numerous quality saves to turn away a number of Pitt shots on frame. Pitt would finish the match with a decided edge in shots (18-6). Smith made a total of six saves.
“Will’s been the best keeper in the league this season. He made some big saves tonight to keep us reasonably close,” Koski said in praising his keeper from Devon, PA. “You saw tonight that not only in his goalkeeping ability, but with his poise and leadership, and what he’s done for our program this year. I know we wouldn’t have won a championship if Will didn’t have the kind of year he had.
The Mountain Hawks had a few moments to cut the lead in half, and make things interesting. There was a stretch where they were bringing pressure — with a free kick from close range that was redirected on frame, forcing Pitt’s keeper Arie Ammann to make a quick reaction save.
There was another cross in the late moments that found Luchini by the far post with a golden opportunity, but the two-time WPIAL champ pulled his shot too high, and over the bar.
Vidovich was certainly wary of what could happen, with one constant thought going through his mind.
“Don’t give up a goal,” Vidovich said. “They had a couple of chances. For four or five minutes, we almost stopped defending. They cannot allow a goal there. In tournament play, weird things can happen.”
Sure enough, the Panthers hung on, and on this historical night for Pittsburgh’s prominent men’s college soccer program, they reached yet another milestone in the Jay Vidovich era — winning an NCAA tournament match.
“It’s something special. It’s something that words cannot express,” Kizza said. “It’s why I came here. To play in games like this.”
His teammate shared this sentiment, and added that they’re feeling like they’re just getting started.
Next up, the third ranked team in the country, the Big East Champions, Georgetown University, on Sunday, in D.C. (Noon kickoff).
“It’s a big win. It’s a great victory,” Walti added. “With the quality of players we have. And the quality of our play, This one victory is not enough to satisfy us. Hopefully we have a lot more games to go, and it starts Sunday. When we get that ‘W’ then we’ll be really happy.”
ED THOMPSON PHOTO GALLERY
Anthony Harding starts!
There was one question I completely forgot to ask Vidovich after the match.
Starting Anthony Harding?
Exciting day for Anthony Harding. Earned his first start in the NCAA tournament! pic.twitter.com/oZsbSYnHRP
— Norwin Boys Soccer (@BoysNorwin) November 22, 2019
Sure, Vidovich has tweaked his line-up at times this season, primarily when he’s dealt with injuries, but in the ACC playoffs, and against most ACC opponents, he’s mostly kept the same line-up.
It was bit of a surprise to see former Norwin High School standout Anthony Harding in the line-up starting at left back.
Harding had played in just one match this season, coming on late and scoring a late goal in a 6-0 romp against Howard.
Now, Pitt was playing its first NCAA tournament match in 54 years, and it was great to see Vidovich show a lot of confidence in the local product to get the nod in the starting eleven.
On Thursday, Harding, a red-shirt freshman wearing number 27, started and played the full match at left back, getting more and more comfortable as the game wore on. While he seemed to be playing it safe for large portions of the first half, he made a few nice plays to initiate a few Pitt advances in the second half, namely a sequence that ended with Hesson’s header that forced a Will Smith save up-against the post.
Koski on Josh Luchini
“He’s only a sophomore. Already (Patriot League’s) offensive player of the year. Still learning every day. Wants to get better. That’s one of things about him that I appreciate. He won’t walk out of this season thinking he’s arrived. Following in his footsteps in his brother Jamie. We’ve been really pleased with Josh. He has a chance to break some scoring records for us. We know Pittsburgh area produces really good players, and we will continue to recruit here. We’ve always had great success with Pittsburgh players.”
Post-Match Reaction on 93.7 The Fan with Paul Zeise
Up Next: Georgetown
The Panthers will face Georgetown in D.C. on Sunday. Kickoff is slated for Noon.
Here’s the latest after Thursday night’s results…
THE BRACKET 😍
— NCAA Soccer (@NCAASoccer) November 18, 2019