Pitt’s Head Coach Jay Vidovich 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, it seemed as if it would be a sure bet he would stick with the same starting line-up that he’s gone with much of the season.
As it turned out, Vidovich would add a new wrinkle in his line-up card on Thursday night in Pitt’s first NCAA tournament match in 54 years.
Former Norwin High School standout Anthony Harding, a redshirt freshman, who had only made one appearance earlier in the season late in 6-0 win against Howard, suddenly found himself in the line-up, getting the start at left back.
Harding scored a late goal in that romp against Howard, but it seemed very fitting to see the former Riverhounds Academy and Norwin standout, one of the local players on the team who had overcome his share of adversity, would be in the line-up.
It came as a pleasant surprise to many local soccer fans.
Exciting day for Anthony Harding. Earned his first start in the NCAA tournament! pic.twitter.com/oZsbSYnHRP
— Norwin Boys Soccer (@BoysNorwin) November 22, 2019
For Harding, it was the opportunity he had waited for since coming to Pitt, and battling back from injury that set him back in his senior year of high school, when he had a bit of a different path charted for himself.
“I was committed to Penn State, and in my first game in my senior year at Norwin, I broke my fifth metatarsal in my foot, and was on a scooter for six months.” Harding said earlier this year in an interview on Pittsburgh Sports Live.
After completely missing out on playing in his senior high school year, Harding found himself at a crossroads while recovering from his injury. Penn State’s coaching staff had undergone changes, and after dealing with the grind of going through rehab while working to getback into playing form, he had a change of course.
Vidovich had seen Harding play with the Riverhounds Academy, and provided him with the option to stay closer to home, and an opportunity to go to Pitt. Harding would sit out his freshman year to take a red-shirt, and get himself back into shape, get ready for the rigors of Division I soccer, all while being a part of a college soccer program on the rise.
“I worked so hard to get back, and when I got to Pitt, I don’t think I was where I needed to be but after being around the great coaching staff there for nine months, I’ve improved more than I ever have in my life,” Harding said.
When arriving at Pitt, Harding discovered what it took to play at that level, and what was to be expected from a coaching staff that had already won National Championships and also had been around the professional game.
“Every thing you do. Your lifestyle revolves around soccer. When I came to Pitt, I wasn’t really a soccer player, I was an athlete,” Harding explained, “I think he (Jay Vidovich) challenged me to thinking like a professional. That if I want to become a soccer player, everything I do would revolve around the game, my teammates and University of Pittsburgh — even off the field — I have to carry the crest.”
The hard work began his redshirt year.
“The biggest thing is knowing your weaknesses, and working to get better. I mean anyone can show up, and make it an obligation, but there are others who show up and want to get better every day, mentally, technically, tactically, those are the ones who are going to get far,” Harding said. “I’ve been on the right path, and I’ve learned a lot since I’ve been at Pitt.”
In the Spring season, Harding finally got on the field, started three of the Pitt’s spring matches, and that helped him get more confidence and on the same page and find his place with the Pitt program, which has gradually improved in each of Vidovich’s first three years.
“We’ve had top recruiting classes. There are players from seven, eight countries. We have a lot of diversity. We can learn from each other. When I was coming off the injury, I was out of shape, and wasn’t playing at a high level, but being around this program and all of these great players, I worked hard and it has helped me get back to a high level. I just have to keep working to stay there.”
In year four of the Vidovich era, things have come together — as Pitt has won and hosted ACC and NCAA tournament games, beat some of the top teams in the country. While he hasn’t played much this season, Harding has been a constant presence, continued to work hard, and grow as a player.
“I am going to go all out. I’m not going to be soft on any tackle. When I am playing outside back, I like to attack. Sometimes I go forward too much. I’m learning more and more when to hold, and when to go forward. That’s what Jay’s been telling me since I’ve been at Pitt. I’m on the right path.”
Harding’s waited for his moment, and has been ready to make an impact.
He got his first taste of collegiate game action at the end of the match against Howard, with Pitt taking control of the match in the second half, Harding came in and scored his first official goal for Pitt.
This past summer, he played valuable minutes for NPSL side Pittsburgh Hotspurs, staying on top of his game at the highest level possible — against competition in U.S. Soccer’s Fourth Division — and for another hometown club where he’s training with a lot of guys he grew up playing with and against.
On Thursday night, Harding earned his first start with Pitt in the 2-0 win vs Lehigh before more than 1,300 fans at Ambrose Urbanic Field.
Wearing number 27, Harding played the full match at left back.
As Pitt took control of the match, building up possession out of the back, for large portions of the first half Harding had plenty of touches in helping his team dictate the tempo of the match,
Harding, using what he’s learned under Vidovich, grew more comfortable as the match played out, and took a few chances, initiating some Pitt advances from the left side in the second half, namely a sequence that ended with Josh Hesson’s header that forced Lehigh’s goalkeeper Will Smith to come up with a save up-against the post.
Pitt now faces overall 3rd seed Georgetown on Sunday in Washington D.C. (Noon kickoff).
Regardless of whether he’s in the starting line-up or not on Sunday, it’s pretty certain that Anthony Harding will be ready for the next challenge and will keep working his tail off to be part of Pitt’s program during a very exciting time.
You can see my full interview with Harding on Pittsburgh Sports Live in May, below.