Pitt men’s soccer program’s rise from the ashes, under the direction of Head Coach Jay Vidovich since his first season in 2016 has been well-chronicled on Pittsburgh Soccer Now.
After five-plus years of incrementally reaching many program firsts, it’s time for the Panthers to take another step forward in this progression, as they have assembled a team that is capable and they have their hearts set on making a deep run in the NCAA tournament, beginning Sunday, when they enter the 36-team field as the second overall seed taking on MAAC champion Monmouth in the second round (Sunday, 8 p.m. Live Stream here).
Vidovich has been on this stage many times as a coach previously with Wake Forest, where he won a National Championship.
He’s never had this much time, 15 days to be precise, between games leading up to the NCAA tournament.
The veteran coach has balanced the positives along with challenges of dealing with a long delay between matches and with this unique tournament set-up being played in the Spring and in a central location, in and around Cary, North Carolina.
“It’s good and bad,” Vidovich said, while waiting in line as part of NCAA’s COVID-19 testing protocol on Saturday. “More than two weeks between matches, and coming off a loss. We had a lot of extra time to train. Get ready. But, it’s been too long and we’re ready for the game. Good news is that some of our players had their last final exams today. They’re totally done with school. Finals and all that stuff is done.”
The Panthers arrived in North Carolina on Friday and put in the work on Saturday morning with a robust training session.
The Panthers have arrived.
— Pitt Men's Soccer (@Pitt_MSOC) April 30, 2021
The Panthers are staying at the same hotel as many other teams, including Penn State, UMass, Oregon State, Stanford and others.
“It’s a whole different setup. Here we are. All in same place. It’s makes sense, from a logistical point of view. We don’t have home and away sites,” Vidovich said.
“It’s all very interesting.”
— Pitt Men's Soccer (@Pitt_MSOC) April 26, 2021
In 2019, the Panthers made program breakthroughs by advancing to the ACC semifinals and into the NCAA tournament’s second round.
However, a humbling second-round loss to the national champions Georgetown in their first go-around in the big dance was a reality check for a program that has been building, bit-by-bit, step-by-step, to go further.
From day one, Vidovich has positioned Pitt as a program with national championship aspirations. He recognizes that it’s a process though.
“They learned how to win last year, but they also saw what it was like to run into a team like a Georgetown,” Vidovich said. “When we ran into them in the NCAA tournament, they could tell — I think we all could tell — it was a different level.”
The Panthers came roaring back with a vengeance this season with very few doubting that this is the strongest team in program history.
Otherwise, they’ve been pretty terrific rolling to become the number one team in the United Soccer Poll on two different occasions. For a college program, the Panthers feature a nice blend of younger players and underclassmen with some older, non-traditional college students who’ve thrived in this setting. The roster also is blended with mix of Americans (even four WPIAL alums on the roster) and lots of international flavor (with players from 11 countries.
“We have had our eyes on the big picture. We’ve had to go through certain things to evolve as national championship caliber program,” Vidovich acknowledged in the Post-Gazette article. “Now, as we’ve reached this point, we recognize there’s more weight and expectation. I am proud of these guys, as they’ve worked hard. They’re ready for this next step.”
One area where Pitt should feel better about as they potentially could be playing four or five games in a two-week knockout tournament span, is having a deeper roster.
Once again on Saturday, Vidovich cited having experienced a ’21st Century’ season model (playing meaningful games in fall and spring) in 2020-21 giving more opportunities to have more players to be more battle-tested and ready to play at high level in the NCAA tournament.
Two of those players from the Pittsburgh area, Luke Mort and Luke Peperak (who we recently featured), have grown as freshman and earned key roles in the team’s attacking player rotation.
“Thanks in large part to this 21st century model, we’ve had a lot of players make progress. We have enough depth. Guys that know their job. They’re more familiar and know our play,” Vidovich said. “We’re very happy with that. We’ll have more answers. Together, they’ve played and trained all year together. There are guys that can come off the bench, who are ready, and they been putting pressure on first our first teamers.”
(Editor’s Note: Vidovich is bullish on the ’21st Century Model’. He believes that momentum is building in favor of college soccer expanding season to both fall and spring semesters, as student-athletes have gone through the full year in 2020-21. Having seen the benefits both academically and other areas, Vidovich said a lot of coaches believe school administrators have become even more supportive of college soccer expanding its season.)
Pitt’s talent, team chemistry and leadership of VIdovich and key players will be put to the test as they aspire to make a deep run to the College Cup Final.
“This is why I came to Pitt,” Mort said. “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.”
Now, each player part of this program has benefited from 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 further 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,”
They will have a chance to get off on the right foot taking on a Monmouth team that’s has earned its way into the second round by winning the MACC championship, then beating MAC champs Bowling Green, with a 2-1 win in the first round.
“This is a team (Monmouth) with experience in do or die situations. They won their tournament. They beat a good Bowling Green side in the first-round,” Vidovich said. “We have to stick to doing what we do best. Play our soccer. Play to win. It’s do or die and it’s a big difference. I feel good about where we are. The guys have really grown up. They’ve been training hard.”
Look for our gameday blog to post on Sunday prior to kickoff. We’ll provide in-game updates, post-game reaction and recap of every Pitt men’s soccer NCAA tournament match.
Pitt Panthers: Position-by-Position breakdown
Leading up to the ACC tournament in November, fellow Pittsburgh Soccer Now contributor Mark Goodman and I took a closer look at Pitt’s roster, breaking down the team by position.