Unusual and uncertain.
Those are two words to describe feelings and emotions around college athletics this warped 2020 season. Until a few weeks ago, athletes didn’t know if they would be stepping on the field or not. Some conferences have elected to forgo a 2020 season for fall sports. Others are pushing toward the spring entirely.
However, the ACC is pushing ahead and competing in a fall season.
It will look different though. However, University of Pittsburgh women’s soccer head coach Randy Waldrum is fine with a little switching around of teams. He’s just happy that his players get the opportunity to take the field in 2020.
“I think, to be honest with you, we’ve seen our staff and players go through a lot of different emotions since this started in March,” Waldrum said last week. “We have these moments where it’s a really big high, we think we’re going to get a season in and then you see teams dropping, and you start worrying. It’s been a big rollercoaster for all of us.”
Waldrum said that the NCAA coming out and declaring an extra year of eligibility for athletes was a reassuring sentiment for all of his players.
“That took a lot of pressure off the players. As we were getting down to looking at all these conferences dropping out, and our schedule starting to shrink — instead of getting 20 games, then going down to 15, then down to 10 and eight, whatever the final number is — I think players were having a hard time to make individual decisions for themselves and saying, ‘Do I play and waste a year of eligibility for only eight or 10 games, or do I sit a year.'”
“I think the NCAA made a really good decision a couple weeks ago.”
Shifting focus to a new, different season
The Panthers received their schedule last week. There are only a handful of ACC conference games, with Syracuse, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Boston College, Florida State, Clemson, Wake Forest and Miami on the docket.
The Panthers will not take on North Carolina or North Carolina State this year in conference play.
The season begins for the Panthers on Thursday against Appalachian State. Waldrum and the Panthers will feature in two games against Appalachian State on Thursday and Sunday, both down in Boone, North Carolina.
However, that wasn’t always the schedule. According to Waldrum, coaches did not like the original format the ACC suggested. Then, the conference allowed coaches to come back and submit changes to the schedule to help with travel, space between games and other factors.
“We submitted it so we would be able to play eight teams [instead of the originally suggested three],” Waldrum said. “We’re still going to play two games a weekend, but it will be like travel partners.” Waldrum used the example of Boston College and Syracuse, which are about four hours apart.
Waldrum’s biggest fear was that the schedule would be pushed until the spring. The last time the Panthers played a competitive match was Oct. 31, 2019, against Virginia Tech. If the season got pushed — and if a potential spring season wouldn’t even happen — Pittsburgh would have a long wait.
“I’m not sure, really, how spring is going to go. We wouldn’t have played at all this 2020 if we didn’t play this fall or in the spring of 2021… I’m happy that so far, we’re hanging in. I’m hopeful we can kick the first ball off and play.”
Waldrum: “They’ve been really good”
Waldrum said that only one player is opting out of the fall season. Other than that, Waldrum has a very young team again. There is only one senior — Dixon Veltri, a midfielder from Fox Chapel — and a lot of incoming freshman.
Standouts from last year returning include Amanda West, who notched 10 goals and nine assists in her first year as a Panther.
Training has obviously been different for the Panthers, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Waldrum is confident in his team, saying that the training has been sharp and “very good.”
“It would be easy for a young team to get distracted with all of this,” Waldrum said. “They’re so eager to play. They didn’t get a spring season in. They realize how much they miss it… I don’t think anyone else has been close to opting out of playing. I think they’re all just ready to go.”
Waldrum brought in four new players in the spring — Emily Yaple, Hailey Davidson, Eva Frankovic and Chloe Minas — and added a few more pieces in the offseason.
“Yaple has exceeded expectations. We knew she was going to be good. Anytime you have a young player, you wonder how they’re going to adapt to the college game. She’s been really, really good. Chloe is really, really good. She’s technical, but she’s got an engine that doesn’t stop. Those two, honestly, are going to change the dynamics of our midfield.”
Davidson, too, played for assistant coach Ben Waldrum at FC Dallas. He expects her to slot into a defensive back role that Cheyenne Hudson starred in last year.
Last year, Mackenzie Edwards was brought into the program and put into a new position: centerback. Waldrum said that Edwards had a complete transformation in the offseason, working hard on her fitness as well as her game.
“She’s really, in the offseason, put a lot of emphasis on her health and nutrition. She looks great physically right now. Her and Kate [McKay] coming back for another year, and with Athalie Palomo, our back four should be really improved, as well.”
— Randy Waldrum (@CoachWaldrum) September 4, 2020
Peña out, so who’s in goal?
The biggest question mark, though, is in goal.
Right now, Waldrum can’t tell you who his starting goalkeeper is going to be on the first game day. Last year, Amaia Peña held down her spot in between the sticks. Now, she’s playing professional soccer in Spain with Athletic Bilbao.
On his roster, Waldrum has junior Katherine Robinson, sophomore Caitlyn Lazzarini and sophomore Gabriella Neibart. Last year, Robinson featured in three games while Lazzarini also featured in three games.
“That’s probably the biggest question mark and that’s a big position to have a question mark,” Waldrum said. “Caitlyn and Kat are a step ahed of Gabby, and she knew that ahead of time. She knew she had some ground to make up. The other two are who we’re looking to see who’s going to be a starter and who’s not.”
Waldrum said that both goalkeepers are different, but with lots of positives in their play.
“Kat is much taller, even taller than Amaia. She has a little bit better range, obviously with aerial balls. Caitlyn is a little bit more physical. She’s shorter, but she’s more compact. So, controlling that box when you have to throw your body in there, she’s a bit better than that. They’re both a little different. I think it’s a good battle right now.”
One area that he wants both goalkeepers to improve on is an area that Peña excelled at: mastering footwork.
“People don’t really understand how good amaia really was, and how good she was with her feet. We could have put her in the field. If she could have kept up physically, she would have been good — skill wise — as the rest of our team… We might not be able to build out of goal kicks like we did with Amaia. That’s one area that we have some question marks. But they’re both capable in goal to handle most of it.”
“We need one of those two to step up in a really big way.”
Looking ahead to an unusual season
The season kicks off on Thursday.
Waldrum and his staff are ready to improve on a successful 2020 season, which saw the program garner its first win in almost four years and fight for a potential playoff spot.
“It’s important to improve in conference like we did,” Waldrum said. “Winning two last year and tying two more, and I think we had five overtime games, that was a big step for us in the ACC. I think it’s important that we build on our wins in the ACC, but also help our team’s confidence level to win outside of the ACC as well.”
In regard to winning, Waldrum has former team that he can look toward in regard to winning and perseverance. Waldrum coached the Houston Dash in the NWSL from 2014-17. Recently, the Dash — which has Pittsburgh-based native Veronica Latsko on the roster — won the NWSL Challenge Cup.
Waldrum called his former player Rachel Daly, an English international whom he drafted, to congratulate her on the victory.
Now, he’s hoping to add some more victories to the Pittsburgh Panthers schedule, starting this Thursday against Appalachian State.
— Pitt Women's Soccer (@Pitt_WSOC) September 9, 2020