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Finishing Strong: Pitt men’s soccer on precipice of NCAA tournament top seed

Photo courtesy Pitt Athletics

Within three minutes of its regular season ending match on Thursday night, Pitt men’s soccer team set up a corner kick opportunity, leading to a well-executed goal.

It was a game they needed to win to secure the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division title, which would be the first-ever time the Pitt program would win an ACC regular season Division title.

Pitt dominates Virginia, 5-0; clinches ACC Coastal Division title

The Panthers’ Alexander Dexter scored after the initial ball was sent from Velkjo Petkovic to the far post side of the box, then redirected by Raphael Crivello to the goal box area where Dexter headed the ball into goal to give Pitt a 1-0 lead as fans that could be in attendance were just getting settled into their seats to watch the match.

For the remainder of the first half, the Panthers spent a lot of time controlling possession, playing the ball out of the back fairly well but failing to really build things up with any consistency to create opportunities in the final third.  On the flip side, they intermittently continued to press Virginia into making mistakes when the Cavaliers were trying to build-up possession out of the back. The Panthers though, weren’t able to punish Virginia enough for its shaky play for long stretches of the first half.

It wasn’t until Pitt’s Head Coach Jay Vidovich’s substitutions, bringing in Luke Mort and Luke Peperak, as part of their attacking player rotation late in the second half, the Panthers found a bit more energy to get the second goal of the match.

After Pitt’s midfield forced another Virginia turnover, the Panthers quickly got into transition and into the box.  Peperak put himself in great position in the box making a run to the far post, getting on the receiving end of a Dexter cross to head home the Panthers’ second goal in the final minute of the half.

It would be the former Connellsville High School and Riverhounds Development Academy standout’s first-ever goal as a Panther.

This was an example of Pitt’s quick striking ability as they punish its opponents with solid defending in the midfield, then precision in the counter-attack.

Despite a dominant first half effort on (they outshot Virginia 9-1, 4-1 with shots on target), Vidovich, who won a national championship at Wake Forest, knew the top-ranked Panthers hadn’t played its best soccer yet.

“It came too easy for us,” Vidovich said when meeting up with media for the first time after a home match this spring season.

“We took the foot off the gas. It was three great minutes to start the half.  Three great minutes to end the half, but a lot of shortcuts in between.”

For the second straight home game, the Panthers turned what they viewed as an incomplete first half effort, then put forth a dominant second half.  (On Saturday, they beat Notre Dame, 2-0, with two second half goals)

The early moments of the second half, Pitt continued to be in control, but weren’t seizing enough opportunities to punish the Cavs.

Finally, the Panthers started to pick apart a stretched out Virginia squad that was battling to keep its NCAA tournament hopes alive.

With a few waves of pressure and dangerous crosses coming one after another, Pitt showed how potent they can be, blowing the game wide open.

After drawing a foul on the edge of the box, freshman Bertin Jacquesson delivered a perfectly executed free kick from 23 yards out, his third goal of the season.

Just two minutes later, freshman Filip Mirkovic scored with a precise hard-lining shot from just inside the box to make it a 4-0 game, as he took a pass from Dexter and connected with the upper left portion of the net for the goal.

With time winding down in the game, senior Bryce Washington scored the fifth and final goal of the match with a header inside the six yard box. Petkovic totaled his second assist of the match.

It’s clear that not only has Vidovich recruited a talented and deep roster, but also has molded this team with a lot of high character student-athletes.

They’re a resilient bunch who seem to get stronger as each game gets into the later stages.

Prior to the two-game homestand to finish the regular season, Pitt had back-to-back overtime victories on the road against Duke and Virginia Tech.

In the ACC, that’s not easy to do.

They’ve since followed that up with two impressive second half performances against traditional ACC stalwarts in Notre Dame and Virginia to close the season.

“The guys are coming up with their plays when they need to,” Vidovich added. “Collectively it’s a lot better. The press, and the work by everybody on the team.”

The end result of this unique, extended regular season, stretching from the Fall and into the Spring, has allowed VIdovich to take Pitt’s program to even greater heights and giving more players a chance to grow and prosper both individually and collectively.

With a Division clinching win behind them, Vidovich, who’s been focused on the intensity of the day-to-day preparations through the course of a season during a pandemic, knows that the road won’t be easy, but this is a team that is maybe finally ready for those next steps.

In the Fall, they made it to the ACC Championship game, losing to Clemson, 2-1.

Now, they will face Clemson again on April 17 in a match that will decide the ACC’s automatic qualifying team for the NCAA tournament.

“It’s not like we owe them, or there’s payback,” Vidovich explained about the upcoming rematch with Clemson. “The last time, we were happy to get into that match with Clemson (in the ACC Championship).  We didn’t have two-and-a-half weeks to train for it either. We just beat Duke and Notre Dame. And we didn’t have anything in us.  This time we’ll have a week or more to prepare. I look forward to that opportunity of us being fresher and them being fresher, and lets see what happens.”

Two days later, the NCAA’s re-adjusted and trimmed down 36-team field will be selected and the brackets will be released.

It would be hard to imagine that Pitt won’t be one of the top seeds in the tournament.

On the Thursday, Vidovich reflected on how he had a vision of what this program could be when he arrived at Pitt more than five years ago.

“When I came here, they wanted to be a significant program, that hadn’t been done before. Come to a city like this, where we want to make people proud of what we’re trying to do. It’s a great opportunity. I am very proud of what the kids have paid and done to get us here.”

After winning an ACC Division title for the first time and on the precipice of being a potential top seed in the NCAA tournament, Vidovich’s vision, is becoming fully realized, but he knows there’s more work to do.

“They’re getting stronger and stronger, “Vidovich said, of his team.

“They’re ready for the next challenge.”

John Krysinsky has covered soccer and other sports for many years for various publications and media outlets. He is also author of 'Miracle on the Mon' -- a book about the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, which chronicles the club, particularly the early years of Highmark Stadium with the narrative leading up to and centered around a remarkable match that helped provide a spark for the franchise. John has covered sports for Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, DK Pittsburgh Sports, Pittsburgh Sports Report, has served as color commentator on Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC broadcasts, and worked with OPTA Stats and broadcast teams for US Open Cup and International Champions Cup matches held in the US. Krysinsky also served as the Head Men’s Soccer Coach at his alma mater, Point Park University, where he led the Pioneers to the first-ever winning seasons and playoff berths (1996-98); head coach of North Catholic boys (2007-08), associate head coach of Shady Side Academy boys (2009-2014).

Riverhounds MF Danny Griffin

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