After scoring an early goal in the third minute, Pitt men’s soccer team was having its way against Virginia for most of the first half in its regular season finale on April 8.
Still, Pitt’s Head Coach, Jay Vidovich, using his starting eleven through the first 36 minutes, wasn’t happy with the way his team was playing, failing to finish off their chances in the final third to get the game’s all-important second goal.
That’s when he turned to two freshman, Luke Mort and Luke Peperak, to provide a spark.
It was time for Mort, a redshirt freshman from Greensburg, and Peperak, a true freshman from Connellsville, to show their value and make their mark.
“We weren’t punishing them (Virginia) enough. We were lacking a little bit of energy on both sides of the ball,” Vidovich said after the match. “We inserted Luke Peperak and Luke Mort, and their activity up high really helped us out.”
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 Alexander 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.
Peperak with his first collegiate goal!
— Pitt Men's Soccer (@Pitt_MSOC) April 9, 2021
This was an example of how Vidovich wants his team to play, with quick striking ability in punishing its opponents with solid defending in the midfield, then precision in the counter-attack.
“The goal was awesome,” Peperak said. “Always thought about scoring my first goal at Pitt and what it would be like. It was a great feeling. But, that’s what we train for, that’s what we have to do.”
At halftime, Vidovich pushed for more of the same, as Peperak and Mort helped lay the groundwork for what the team was capable of doing in the second half.
The Panthers would roll past Virginia, scoring three more goals en route to a dominant 5-0 win that would clinch Pitt’s first-ever ACC Coastal Division title.
Mort and Peperak know that once they come into a game, they want to keep their team on the front foot.
“Our main goal is to press, put stress on center backs, force mistakes,” Peperak added.
Mort also had a pretty memorable first collegiate goal in the Fall at Louisville, when the Panthers punished the Cardinals in the second half of that game.
A goal to remember ⚽
Luke Mort's first career goal is a left foot to the upper 90.
No. 1 Pitt 4️⃣, Louisville 1️⃣
— Pitt Men's Soccer (@Pitt_MSOC) October 23, 2020
“In the final two-thirds (when defending), we play as a team,” Mort said. “When we get into the final third, we have freedom.”
Mort, who excelled with Greensburg Central Catholic and the Pittsburgh Riverhounds Developmental Academy, knew Pitt would be the best place for him contribute his talents as an attacking player.
“It just felt right,” Mort said at the time. “I believe I’ll grow as a player and person, all while receiving a great education.
Both Lukes were eager to play for a coach that has won a National Championship at Wake Forest, and has been slowly building Pitt’s program as a contender in the toughest college soccer conference in the country.
“I chose Pitt because of the competition the ACC entails along with the privilege of playing under coach Vidovich and the rest of the staff all while receiving a great education at a university with diverse academic programs,” Mort added.
Together, Mort and Peperak, friends since they both played with the Riverhounds Development Academy, have complementary skills and talents.
“I’ve known Pep for five or six years, since we played with the Riverhounds Academy. He’s was in group older than me. His skill on the ball is amazing, which makes him a great fit to be a ‘nine’ here,” Mort said. “But he’s a good person and a good friend too.”
“We always talked about wanting to play at the highest level,” Peperak acknowledged. “When being recruited, I spoke with Mort and (Anthony) Harding a lot. Plus, my brother, (Alex) was here when Pitt started to turn things around. Really, what Jay was doing was phenomenal, and we wanted to be a part of it.”
Peperak cited the Riverhounds’ efforts to add facilities and programs in his home area of Connellsville being an important pathway for him to get to this point.
The senior from Connellsville graduated with the most goals in his school’s history (87). He netted 33 as a senior, while his brother, Alex, played at Pitt from 2016-19 and made 20 starts in the midfield.
The younger Peperak had many top-rate experiences as a youth player, as part of the Riverhounds Academy’s record class of 39 Division I players, including being part of Elite Clubs National League Training Camp and training with the Riverhounds SC professional team as part of the organization’s Pathway Program for older RDA boys.
Now, each have taken advantage of the professional environment that Vidovich adheres and brought into Pitt’s program’s philosophy.
“We’re focused on getting one-percent better each day,” Mort explained. “Throughout our facility, we have reminders of this. Jay stresses the Kaizen Way to Self-Improvement, that you get better at everything you do. It goes beyond the playing field,”
Both Peperak and Mort had to pay their dues when arriving at Pitt, but each have found their place.
After not seeing any action in 2019, when he took a redshirt year while getting better, training alongside the team and adjusting to college life, Mort has made 13 appearances, getting three starts during the 2020-21 campaign, with one goal.
As a true freshman, Peperak has made 10 appearances, all off the bench, contributing one goal and one assist.
Vidovich said that both Mort and Peperak have benefitted from the extended 2020-21 season for ACC programs brought about by COVID-19 extending the NCAA playing period into the Spring.
“They’ve benefited as a result of this ’21st Century’ model’ where we’re playing games in both the fall and in the spring,” Vidovich, who’s long been an advocate for NCAA season extending into the Spring, said.
“If Pep had finished the fall, and played two games, I am not sure he would have benefited. He wasn’t a player yet. He did what he could do, but he didn’t have the responsibilities yet that he has now.”
Vidovich didn’t stop there.
“Look at Luke Mort, and where he his now. If he had stopped where he was in the Fall, and not having the opportunity to push guys in training for meaningful playing time. They both continue to grow. At this point, when we start a game now, we know we go to seven or eight guys off the bench, and Luke (Mort) and Pep are a big part of that,” Vidovich explained.
“And to be local boys, and finding their way on to that, and play in meaningful ACC games, championship games, for Pep to get a goal like that, That’s a big thing for Pittsburgh soccer. That he could be here in a year’s time.”
Both finance majors, Mort and Peperak both admitted that the transition to college life wasn’t always easy, but they’ve learned a lot already in a short amount of time.
“It’s definitely different, harder for sure,” Peperak said. “We’ve had Zoom fatigue. But, it’s not bad if you do work and study hard.”
“It really helps to have team study hours, where we’re all working together and have a lot of support with our academics,” Mort added.
Despite a setback on April 17, losing 2-0 to Clemson in the ACC’s Automatic Qualifying match for the NCAA Tournament, Pitt were rewarded for its impressive 2020-21 campaign, receiving the No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA Division I Men’s Soccer Championship during Monday’s parings announcement.
With finals out of the way, Mort and Peperak will be focused on helping a Pittsburgh soccer team potentially do something they’ve never done before — make it all the way to the College Cup (Final Four).
Their quest will begin next weekend, when the Panthers play the winner of Bowling Green (7-4-1) and Monmouth (5-2-1), Sunday, May 2 in Greensboro, N.C., in the second round.
With the two Lukes in the mix and ready to contribute to a National Championship run, Pitt’s soccer ascension is nearly complete and inclusive of high-level local talent.
“Playing in my first game was nerve wracking, but I had to say to myself, I am getting a chance. It may make you nervous, but then you think, this is what you’re here for,’ Peperak said.
“And that’s when instincts take over.”