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Column: Pitt women’s soccer serve notice by earning elusive ACC statement win at Notre Dame

Photo courtesy Pitt Athletics

Pitt women’s soccer team has been in search of a breakthrough win against top-tier ACC competition for a few years now.

While the Panthers have improved dramatically under the direction of Head Coach Randy Waldrum, picking up a win against a ranked team on the road had eluded the program.

On Sunday, the Panthers served notice to the ACC and women’s college soccer landscape that they may be a legitimate conference and national contender, as they kept its perfect start in ACC play going by earning a 3-1 victory over No. T-17 Notre Dame (8-2-0, 1-2-0) Sunday at Alumni Stadium.

The win provided numerous milestones and breakthroughs for the program.

It was the first-ever victory over the Fighting Irish in 17 tries and extended their best start to a season in program history.

Pitt matched the 2015 team for the best start to ACC play through three games in program history.

And maybe most importantly, they beat a ranked team on the road, giving them even more confidence and something to build upon for this season and potentially as a program moving forward with defining win that helps with recruiting and building a winning culture.

“What a fantastic win on the road against a very good team,” Waldrum, who previously led the Irish to a pair of National Championships, said. “I am continually amazed at the way this team fights and responds. I’m so proud of them, and it’s a wonderful birthday present. I’m just beyond words and so proud of these ladies.”

Waldrum’s program came into the season trying to finally make a push to earn a first-ever ACC postseason berth, which is always difficult as only six of the 14 teams qualify for the ACC tournament.

The veteran coach has said that it would be harder to get into the ACC postseason than to qualify for the NCAA tournament, which they’ve come close in 2020-21, and 2021, with 11 win seasons, but losing records in the ACC.

The Panthers have also been without its leading scorer the past four years, Amanda West, who went down with a knee injury early against Cincinnati in early September, after scoring six goals in the team’s first five matches.

Waldrum and his staff have been tirelessly recruiting since the day he stepped foot on Pitt’s campus.  This season, especially following West’s injury and against ACC competition thus far, the Panthers’ depth and talent have been put to the test, and they’ve passed through with flying colors.

Heading into Sunday’s match at South Bend, the Panthers were itching to finally get a big win against a top-tier ACC opponent.

On Waldrum’s birthday, his players gave him a present that he’ll never forget, by defeating his former program by fighting through a back-and-forth battle and coming out on top.

The Panthers got on the scoreboard first to take a 1-0 lead into halftime, then responded to a Notre Dame equalizer by scoring twice more to earn a key road conference win.

Pitt weathered the early Notre Dame attack, with Caitlyn Lazzarini making a pair of saves in the sixth minute to keep the Fighting Irish off the scoreboard.

Leah Pais put the Panthers in front with her team-high seventh goal of the season, scoring on a second-chance opportunity after a shot by Anna Bout. All seven of Pais’ goals have come in the last six games.

The Fighting Irish came up with an equalizer in the 64th minute when Ellie Ospeck scored off an assist by Olivia Wingate to even the score at one-all.

Notre Dame’s goal did not deter the Panthers, though, as a pass by Samiah Phiri set up a long run down the right side of the field by Landy Mertz, who buried the goal in the top left corner to put Pitt back in front, 2-1.

Pitt got an insurance goal 10 minutes later as Notre Dame scored an own goal on a free kick ball by Pitt that bounced into the net.

“So many great performances, and every player played a part,” Waldrum said. “We continue to find ways to respond, like after they tied the game up at 1-1. A few years ago, we may have folded under the pressure. Our team knows we are good and capable, so they couldn’t wait to respond.”

The Panthers prevailed by a two-goal margin despite being outshot by the Fighting Irish, 15-9. Pais compiled a game-high five shots and three shots on goal. Lazzarini totaled a game-high five saves.

Maddie Mercado and Wingate combined for eight of Notre Dame’s 15 shots with four apiece, with two of Mercado’s coming on goal to lead the team. Ashley Naylor made three saves but surrendered all three goals.

The win keeps the Panthers at the top of the ACC conference standings where they’re now tied with two of the ACC’s elite programs, Duke and Florida State.  On Monday, the Panthers also moved up to seventh in the RPI rankings to solidify its NCAA tournament chances, but after not receiving a vote in the United Soccer Coaches Poll last week, the Panthers may also finally earn a national ranking soon too.

But there’s still a lot of work to do.  The ACC is gong to be a tough grind, with matches vs powers North Carolina, Duke and Florida State to come.

However, the next immediate order of business, Pitt returns to the friendly confines of Ambrose Urbanic Field next Saturday for a 7 p.m. clash against Louisville.

PITT NOTES

  • Sunday’s win marked the Pitt’s fifth over a ranked opponent in program history and first since taking down then No. 16-ranked Oklahoma State, 3-2, on Aug. 19, 2021.
  • Pitt is now 41-35-1 under the leadership of fifth-year head Randy Waldrum. After going 9-22-4 in the first two years of a massive rebuild, Pitt has gone 32-15 over the last two-plus seasons.
  • Leah Pais has now scored 16 goals in her Pitt career, giving her 41 points in three seasons as a Panther.
  • Landy Mertz has now scored 11 goals and logged 33 points in her three years at Pitt.
  • Anna Bout was credited with her team-high sixth assist of the season, upping her career total to 16 assists and 24 points.
  • Samiah Phiri tallied her third save in her first season as a Panther.
  • Caitlyn Lazzarini is now 18-7-0 in goal in her career.

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).

PItt MF Michael Sullivan

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