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Pitt women fall in close match to Florida State; focus goes to Clemson for ACC berth

Photo courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh Athletics.

The University of Pittsburgh women’s soccer team hasn’t had the best of luck against Florida State in recent years. As senior striker Leah Pais said, the team is used to being blown out by the big ACC powerhouse.

However, the tale of the tape was different against Florida State this year. At Ambrose Urbanic Field, the Seminoles continued their winning streak against the Panthers, but it was anything but a blowout.

The Panthers kept it highly contested through 90 minutes of soccer, even adding a very close free kick at the top of the box sailing just over the crossbar. Landy Mertz had two shots on goal, while Samiah Phiri and Sarah Schupansky finished with on goal on target against Seminoles goalkeeper Mia Justus.

Pais said that, while the loss stung, the scoreline proved a new chapter for Pitt against Florida State.

“It’s a new era for Pittsburgh against Florida State,” Pais said.

“We’ve always been beaten by large amounts. This time we were  battling: every single ball, every single opportunity to move forward, we took advantage of it. I thought a few of ours were going to go in, and we had some good chances, but at the end of the day, we took our foot off the pedal for a minute and they capitalized. We kept pushing right until the very last minute.”

Leilanni Nesbeth, whom Seminoles head coach Brian Pensky called the “unsung hero” of the team during the broadcast preparation call, scored the game-winner in the 67th minute. Nesbeth volleyed the ball to herself and fired, hitting the post and getting a lucky bounce in. There wasn’t much Panthers goalkeeper Caitlyn Lazzarini could do.

No goalkeeper in the ACC was making that save, co-color commentator Juliana Vazquez said.

The Panthers didn’t let up, though. Ellie Coffield was fouled at the top of the box with the minutes waning down in the second half. Pittsburgh added a fourth forward to the line to pressure the Seminoles. Both teams finished with four shots on target.

“We had a defensive game plan in place. We frustrated them and took them out of their rhythm and the way they like to play,” Panthers head coach Randy Waldrum said. “I think we really — at the end of the day, we had 13 with four on target, they had 14 with four on target — the kind of chances we had were a little more dangerous than the ones they had. Little bit unfortunate we conceded the one after the way we worked, but really proud of the group.

“I think this shows we can play with anyone in the country.”

Waldrum said that the DNA of the team this whole year has impressed him, so the fight-back after going a goal down was par for the team’s character.

“We threw a fourth forward up front and tried to get the goal late in the game,” Waldrum explained. “We had a couple great chances. Leah laid one off to Sam there in the box before the foul, they got blocked and Landy had a rebound opportunity. Then there was the foul with Keera [Melenhorst] driving in the box.

“That’s something the team has done all season. They continue to fight back.”

Panthers have all eyes on Clemson

The scenario is simple: with a win or a draw, the Panthers will head to the ACC Tournament, a sight they’ve had their eyes on all year. It will be the first time the Panthers have been in the tournament.

Pitt was perfect at home until Florida State came to town, but that’s a team that won the NCAA Championship last year and returned 12 of those players.

“You’d much rather be at home,” Waldrum said. “We’re much better at home than we are on the road. That’s kind of the case with all the ACC teams. Clemson has to travel, so that’s not easy in this conference. It’s going to be a massive game on Thursday night. It’s going to be a great game for the fans.”

Pais said that, since her time at Pitt, the Panthers have never hosted Clemson. To do so for a big game like this will be one fans won’t want to miss.

“They have momentum going into that game,” Pais said, referencing Clemson’s 3-0 victory over Boston College on Sunday. “It’s an ACC game, and the stakes are high and it’s whether you make the ACC Tournament or not. It’s Clemson, it’s a big game. We’re at home, so the energy and the environment will be amazing. We’re excited for that game and hope to get a result.”

Clemson saw goals from Maliah Morris and two from Samantha Meredith.

Thursday’s huge match against Clemson will kick off at 7:05 p.m. at Ambrose Urbanic Field. The game will be shown on ESPN+ and the ACC Network with Jason Earle on play-by-play and myself and Juliana Vazquez as co-color commentators. Tickets are on sale now.

The sport of soccer is Rachael Kriger's area of expertise. Kriger covers Steel City FC for Pittsburgh Soccer Now and provides various columns, with occasional work with Pitt Women's Soccer. Elsewhere, Kriger is the co-managing editor of Last Word on Soccer and the social media coordinator and lead Liga MX Femenil writer for Equalizer Soccer. She is a member of the official NWSL Media Association and the North American Soccer Reporters, serving as the NASR's Vice President after two years in the role of Communications Director.

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