What a long strange trip it’s been.
Just five short years ago, it would be hard to fathom that the Pitt Men’s Soccer team would be in the Final Four of NCAA College Cup. After making the leap from the Big East Conference to the ACC, the best soccer conference in America, in 2013, Pitt had spent a half-decade as the conference doormat. The Panthers were winless in ACC play in 2013, 2014, and 2015. And when the Jay Vidovich era began in 2016, things didn’t immediately turn around, as that first year for the two-time NCAA championship winning coach finished a dismal 2-13-3.
On a Zoom conference call from Cary, North Carolina, Vidovich fielded questions from national media about his teams veritable rags-to-riches story.
Vidovich told me “I still feel in my body those only two wins. It’s a pretty humbling job and experience.”
The coach gave a ton of credit for the rebuild on the administration at Pitt for making the conscious decision to become competitive in the men’s ACC soccer.
“It’s a journey started by leadership, by Chancellor (Patrick) Gallagher, Scott Barnes and now Heather Lyke who thought that we could be competitive in the ACC and has given us an opportunity to do so, and started with me having a really good staff around me and it goes to my academic team and strength and conditioning staff.”
After that first bumpy season, successful recruiting and improved training and coaching had vastly improved Pitt’s team, as the 2017 Panthers finished 8-10, beating three nationally ranked opponents. There was slow and steady progress in 2018 as the 8-10 Panthers garnered their first-ever ACC Men’s Soccer Tournament victory in a first-round win over Virginia. And then in 2019, the program reached its great est heights ever, with a winning record of 10-8-1, a victory over the number-one ranked team in the country (Virginia), a bid to the NCAA College Cup for the first time, and a first-ever NCAA Tourney win in the first round over Lehigh.
The goal wasn’t specifically national acclaim or a trophy for Vidovich – it was instead an approach to excellence that would make those achievements possibilities.
Vidovich said Tuesday, “We had a vision in mind going forward. The destination wasn’t a national championship or a final four, per se, but ‘can we conduct our business in a national championship fashion?’ Can we go about training – can we go about developing our players at the highest level as student -athletes?’ That’s been the push that got us here.”
‘Here’ is the exceptional 2020-21 season, in which the Panthers have an outrageous 16-3 record, were ranked #1 in the country more than once, topped the ACC, reached the ACC Tournament Final (losing 2-1 to Clemson), earned another bid to the NCAA Tourney, two wins, and had sophomore Valentin Noel named as a MAC Hermann trophy finalist.
“It’s been a long journey, but we’re very excited about where we are.”
The journey ain’t over yet.
The Panthers are just one win away from playing in the school’s first-ever soccer national championship game. And I don’t want to jinx it, but if Pitt wins their next two matches, against Indiana and then the winner of Marshall/North Carolina, it’d be the first time any Pitt team had won a national championship since the football team won in 1976.
And Vidovich isn’t one to be satisfied with what he’s achieved to date.
“I’m one of those guys that likes to win all the time.”
The Panthers will first need to get by Indiana in their Final Four matchup on Friday, May 14. The game at 8:30 pm EST will be aired on ESPNU and streamed on ESPN+ and fubotv.com. The two teams last met in 2019 at the start of the season. Pitt took a 2-0 lead into halftime, but fell to the Hoosiers 3-2 in overtime. Vidovich dismisses that match as irrelevant to what he anticipate from his team this Friday.
“That was a whole different team on our side, and that was a whole different team on their side. I’m not sure if (playing Indiana is) redemption. It’s more of excitement to play them. We’ve had the chance to play them several times and it’s always a tremendous match.”
Coach Vidovich isn’t resting on his laurels. He’s not thinking of the past. He’s not thinking of revenge. He’s not content with his team’s remarkable accomplishments to date.
He just wants to win.