There once was a time when the fall NCAA season would roll around and local Pittsburgh soccer diehards could come to expect almost nothing from Pitt’s soccer team.
Times have changed.
The Pitt Panthers, both the men and the women, have established themselves as strong contenders in the ACC over the past few years. Women’s coach Randy Waldrum has constructed a program over the past three years that has recruited talent, discovered an identity, and – perhaps most importantly – gotten results. Pitt’s 11-5-0 (WLT) record in 2020 was just the team’s second winning season in the past decade.
This season, the team will not simply be content to win a few surprise games as they have in the past or beat up some non-conference opponents: they have post-season goals. Coach Waldrum looks at the season this way: “What I’ve tried to tell the players is, ‘let’s break the season into thirds.’ The first phase is… we’ve got eight non conference games, and we got some games that we feel are very winnable. Then I think the second phase, we focus on ACC play. And the third phase is postseason.”
Waldrum tells me he’d love to win all eight of those matches; the first ‘phase’ of the season. But even if not, he’s counting on a hot start to the season. “If we’re seven and one or six and two, we need to win as many of the non conference games as we can.” Coach puts a heavy emphasis on the word ‘need’.
Randy knows getting to either the ACC Tournament, which will host just six teams this year, or the NCAA Tourney which will invite 48 teams, will require a little bit more from the Panthers than they’ve produced in the past. “I think we’re we’re in a picture for an NCAA Tournament berth. Not that I don’t want to discount the ACC tournament this year; they’ll only take the top six teams instead of the top eight in the ACC. To me the focus is the NCAA. If we get into the ACC, great, but we can miss the ACC tournament and still get into the NCAA’s. And that’s the bigger picture.”
Returning players a huge strength for Pitt
Pitt come into 2021 with tremendous stability. They return all eleven starters from last years team, and graduated just two frequent contributors from the 2020 squad: Dixon Veltri and Anna Rico. Among the returning players is Sophomore forward Amanda West, who was in the running for the NCAA Golden Boot last season with 13 goals. Fullback Athalie Palomo, a product of the FC Dallas academy team, has youth international experience playing for the Mexican U-20 team and is probably the best reaction-defender on the backline.
Attacking wingers Chantelle Parker and Leah Pais provided dangerous crosses and attacking pace on the outside for Waldrum’s Panthers in 2020. The two are both back this season, although the team has increased their depth at forward, which might allow the Panthers to rotate those speed players from game to game a little more often – or perhaps push both to bench roles. The most experienced player to highlight on the roster is Junior center back Kate McKay. The 5 foot 10 native of Scottsdale, Arizona can provide valuable poise and experience to a team that contains zero Seniors and just five Juniors in the lineup. Emily Yaple of Erie, PA has been a versatile two-way midfielder that’s really the complete package: a player that’s physical and fast, tough, and has excellent vision to distribute the ball.
Finally, with all the excitement of the fast-paced and high-scoring forwards at Pitt, it might be easy to overlook second-year midfielder Chloe Minas. Minas is the deep-lying mid that’s cool under pressure and quick to snuff out opposing attacks. A lot of the match tempo from game to game is dictated by how involved – and how disruptive – the spritely central player from Montreal, Quebec can be, and she will likely be a critical player once again to the team’s success in the 2021 season.
New faces from close places
The big excitement for Pitt this year was the culmination of a multi-year recruiting process that is focused right dahntahn, as the Panthers have brought some of the best players from Western Pennsylvania to the Oakland campus for this year. Upper St. Clair native Landy Mertz transferred this past November from the University of Dayton, and after getting into two matches in the spring will likely have a bigger impact this fall as a midfielder or perhaps a winger.
Pitt also has added highly-touted midfielder Ellie Coffield to the ballclub. The Mars high school grad and Beadling club player was the 2019 Moe Rosensteel Player of the Year and a two-time Pennsylvania Gatorade Player of the Year. Brimming with talent, she’ll likely get a lot of time in the midfield this season, although the step up from ‘dominating teams in the Pittsburgh area’ to ‘competing in the fastest and most talented conference in college soccer’ will no doubt be a challenge.
The 2020 Rosensteel Player of the Year, Sarah Schupansky, committed to Pitt way back in 2018 as a high school freshman, but now she’s finally arrived. Schupansky is a prolific-scoring center forward that is an absolute terror in the final third – weaving past defenders, bending in shots, and pouncing on rebounds. Although one might think Amanda West would have locked up center forward with her record to-date, Waldrum is definitely open to tinkering with the front three. Coach Waldrum says, “If we opened up tomorrow, it would probably be Schupansky more in a nine position and I’d keep (Amanda) West out wide and Landy Mertz out in the other flank.” It is quite the high-praise of a Freshman forward that she has pushed her way into a job as a possible starting striker in perhaps the team’s first regular season match.
But wait! There’s more! North Huntingdon, PA forward Emily Harrigan transferred from Rutgers in the offseason, giving Pitt yet another option to pour in goals. Harrigan played for Norwin High School and was named to the United Soccer Coaches Girls All-America Team as a senior in 2018. Pitt will also have recent West Allegheny High grads and teammates Mackenzie Evers and Katelyn Kauffman, and North Allegheny Goalkeeper Madison Vukas on the squad.
Waldrum says, “We’ve tapped into a lot of the top local kids. That’s one thing that, when I first got here, I was really surprised that there wasn’t a better – for lack of a better word – wasn’t a better relationship with Pitt and the local soccer community. There’s some clubs out here doing some really great work and developing some talent. And it’s important that we try to keep the best kids home.”
Clearly, a lot of the best kids are coming home, and a few more are *staying* home to help build Pitt into a feisty and fierce ACC opponent.
But… it’s still the ACC
It’s entirely possible to add one of the best recruiting classes in all of NCAA women’s soccer and *still* expect to battle in every ACC matchup – because the depth and quality in this conference is just bonkers.
In 2020, the top four teams in the ACC were Florida State (13-0-3 WLT), North Carolina (18-2-0), Virginia (14-4-3), and Clemson (12-5-2). Florida State’s Jaelin Howell won the MAC Hermann Trophy as college soccer’s best player last year while also earning two caps for the USWNT… and she is still returning to play her senior season for the Seminoles. The midfielder lead Florida State to the College Cup final last spring, where they lost on penalty kicks to Santa Clara, so it can be assumed they will be close-to-as-good this year. And may likely make a run right back to the NCAA final.
North Carolina lost a few top players to graduation and the NWSL, including MAC Hermann finalist Briana Pinto. They’ve won 21 NCAA championships, but zero in the past 9 seasons, so there’s pressure there and the weight of unfulfilled expectations. But also, they always attract a ridiculously good caliber of player. Virginia midfielder Lia Godfrey was ACC Freshman of the year in 2020; Diana Ordonez had a team-leading 12 goals; and forward Alexa Spaanstra was an ACC first-team selection.
Both Duke and Clemson are strong teams year after year, so for Pitt to crack that upper echelon of the top four or five ACC teams would take some doing, and the coach knows it. “I think we’re now a team that’s in at least that middle of the ACC. To me, you’ve got Carolina, Virginia, Florida State, probably Duke. Those four to me are kind of the cream.” Still, as we mentioned earlier, that’s what it’ll take for Pitt to make one of the postseason tournaments.
Pitt opens the season with a pair of games in Oklahoma: this Thursday against Tulsa in Stillwater, OK, followed by a game Sunday against #16 Oklahoma State, also in Stillwater. The home opener against Cleveland State in on August 26.
Rabbi’s Projected Starting XI for Opening Day
GK Caitlyn Lazzarini
D- Hailey Davidson D- Eva Frankovic D- Kate McKay D- Athalie Palomo
M- Chloe Minas M- Emily Yaple M- Ellie Coffield
F- Landy Mertz F- Sarah Schupansky F- Amanda West
2021 Pitt Schedule
Day/Date ………………Opponent………………………..Location ………..Time (ET)
Thursday, Aug. 19 …@ Tulsa^ …………………………. Stillwater, Okla……..5 PM
Sunday, Aug. 22…….@ #16 Oklahoma State^ .. Stillwater, Okla……. Noon
Thursday, Aug. 26 . Cleveland State………….. Pittsburgh, Pa……..5 PM
Sunday, Aug. 29 …. NJIT …………………………. Pittsburgh, Pa……..1 PM
Thursday, Sept. 2 ….@ Saint Joseph’s ……………… Philadelphia, Pa……7 PM
Sunday, Sept. 5 ….. #8 TCU ………………….. Pittsburgh, Pa……..1 PM
Thursday, Sept. 9 .. Saint Francis……………… Pittsburgh, Pa……..7 PM
Sunday, Sept. 12 … Towson……………………… Pittsburgh, Pa……..1 PM
Thursday, Sept. 16 ..@ #7 Clemson* …………….Clemson, S.C………..7 PM
Thursday, Sept. 23 ..@ #1 Florida State*………. Tallahassee, Fla……7 PM
Sunday, Sept. 26……@ Miami* …………………………Coral Gables, Fla. …1 PM
Saturday, Oct. 2….. Virginia Tech*…………….. Pittsburgh, Pa……..7 PM
Thursday, Oct. 7 …. #3 North Carolina*….. Pittsburgh, Pa……..7 PM
Sunday, Oct. 10……..@ #6 Duke* ………………….Durham, N.C. ……….2 PM
Saturday, Oct. 16…..@ Syracuse* ……………………. Syracuse, N.Y. ………7 PM
Thursday, Oct. 21 .. Boston College* …………. Pittsburgh, Pa……..7 PM
Sunday, Oct. 24 ….. Wake Forest* …………….. Pittsburgh, Pa……..1 PM
Thursday, Oct. 28 .. NC State* ………………….. Pittsburgh, Pa……..7 PM
— — — — — — — — — — — —
Bold = Home Match ^ = BancFirst Cowgirl Soccer Invitational * = ACC Match
Preseason rankings by United Soccer Coaches as of August 4, 2021
Game times and dates subject to change