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New faces, returning stars: Pitt women’s soccer is ready to build off historic 2022 season

Photo: Pitt women's soccer.

Ben Waldrum isn’t one for the spotlight.

The Pitt women’s soccer associate head coach has enjoyed a ‘head-coach’ role in the last few weeks for the program, with his father, and head coach, Randy Waldrum leading the Nigerian women’s national team at the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

However, the younger Waldrum said he’s just doing what he’s been doing for the last few years: implementing the same practice and game model that his father has installed in the program.

“When he got here, he installed a very specific way he wanted to play,” Waldrum said. “It makes our job easier, the coaches who fill in when he’s gone. We already know what we have to implement, some of the things we need to work on, and then, obviously, what we see in training and what we need to improve on. It allows us to focus on that. Honestly, it’s been seamless, I don’t think the players have skipped a beat either. I think that’s the genius behind what he’s done — installing and building a program here. It makes everybody’s job easy.”

The senior Waldrum returned to Ambrose Urbanic Field late last week after Nigeria fell to England in an chaotic penalty shootout in the Round of 16. Also returning was Deborah Abiodun, an incoming Pitt freshman who was named to the Nigeria roster.

Ben Waldrum joked that he might not give his dad full control of the reins when he got back.

“There is a slight chance I may not let him take charge when he gets back,” Waldrum said with a laugh. “The way we’ve done it here, it doesn’t feel uncomfortable or out of place. He’s missed some games as well. It’s not uncommon for our team or players. We really don’t skip a beat.”

He’s right about that. The Pitt women’s soccer players were focused and competed hard in drills and miniature scrimmages last Thursday during practice. Pitt recently finished their preseason and will open up the regular season on Thursday, Aug. 17, against Buffalo.

Pitt isn’t an entirely new-look season on paper. Leah Pais and Emily Yaple have transferred to Florida State and Florida, respectively, while Caitlyn Lazzarini and Hailey Davidson have graduated from the program. Most notable was Athalie Palomo’s departure, signing with Liga MX Femenil powerhouse side Tigres.

Waldrum has coached Palomo throughout a majority of her playing career.

“I think, the strangest thing for me, is not coaching a team that has Athalie in it,” Waldrum said. “I’ve been coaching her for almost 10 years. So that’s a little unique and strange.”

Newcomers to make impact with Panthers

Some newcomers have joined the fray. Pitt has a freshman class of 16 players, including Delaney Evers — junior Mackenzie Evers’ younger sister — and Olivia Lee, a standout from New York. In addition, Pitt also has some transfers new to the team, including Emily Cooper.

“We have a few options for different spots,” Waldrum said. “To know what the solution is going to be when we open at Buffalo, it’s hard to paint right now. There is a little bit of an adjustment period. I think our talent pool has upgraded from last year.”

Waldrum named a few standout players that have impressed in the preseason training. One name that came after speaking with Waldrum, fifth-year player Landy Mertz and Chloe Minas, was Austrian freshman Lanie Fuchs.

Waldrum also stated that returning players have made impacts in camp, as well.

“Lanie has done really well. I think, soccer IQ wise, is playing at a high level,” Waldrum said. “Olivia Lee is another I expect to contribute right away. We have had some players grow. Fleming Dean is one to keep an eye on in midfield. She missed some games because of concussion stuff last year, but she looks like a veteran right now. We didn’t lose a ton, and we get what feels like brand-new players in [Amanda] West and Chloe [Minas]. When you add that to the mixture of the incoming, I think we’ll be in the mix for sure.”

Amanda West, Chloe Minas return from ACL injuries

Speaking of West and Minas, their return to the pitch has not only inspired their teammates, but should cause panic for defenders around the ACC.

As West said, she’s got some pieces to pick up.

I am back on the field and I have some unfinished business that I want to take care of this year,” West declared. 

Minas tore her ACL first, in preseason training almost exactly a year ago. Meanwhile, West competed in a few matches, and scored six goals in six matches last year. Both players coming back, as Waldrum said, are essentially new players.

“It kind of feels like a new team with them back,” Waldrum said. “I think the one thing, when you get those caliber of players back, and then the success you had last year, it’s a bit of a delicate balance when you reintegrate those players. I think for us, short-term, in the first phase of the season, we need to make sure that they stay healthy. In the first exhibition, we didn’t stretch them out too much. We have them in mind, a target for time we want them to play. We want to get them reintegrated into the team.” 

Minas said that she plays with a sense of gratitude after her ACL injury.

“I’m really excited to be back. I can’t put it into words,” she said. “I’m playing with a sense of gratitude now. It’s different when you’ve been out so long. The team has been doing really well. Finding the ways to click, all together, has been a fun little challenge. It’s been great.”

Minas said that she got cleared in her eighth month of rehabilitation. She credited Pitt and the athletic program for giving athletes the best chance to recover fully and healthy.

“At Pitt, they do it so well. We were in the pool doing water exercises, on the field doing monster walks, a lot of rehabilitation exercises,” she explained. “We were in the training room all the time. It was super hard getting back, because you have to build that fitness up again — not just physical fitness, but also mental fitness. We would wake up early to run the Petersen Events Center stairs… It was such a rediscovery process. I have to remember how I play. I can choose how I play now, which is fun. It’s a grind. It’s definitely rewarding being back on the field.”

West said that having Minas with her during the recovery — and later, Ashley Moon, who tore her ACL later in the season — helped her with the rehabilitation process.

“I’d be lying if I said that my initial reaction, when I tore my ACL, was ‘OK, here we go, I’m going to tackle this rehab.’ I was in shock for a long time,” West said. “You never think that’s going to happen to you. Then, it does. It was really hard. Having teammates to go through it with you makes it infinitely easier. We were together all day every day. I have all the respect in the world for people who go through injuries. There is so much done that is not seen. We were up every morning at 7 a.m. and we wouldn’t leave for about five hours, just doing rehab. It’s very repetitive. Once you’re at six months, you can run again. At seven months, you can touch a ball again. It’s a really grueling time, but also rewarding.”

Once you finally reach the finish line, I felt so much stronger,” she continued. “I appreciate every little thing my body could do so much more. There was a time where I couldn’t even stand on my own. Now, I’m back, playing and cutting. I’m extremely thankful and feel a lot stronger.”

Both players said it was difficult to watch the team do so well last year, but were happy for their teammates and look forward to building off the success this season.

“Watching from the sidelines was tough,” West explained. “When I got here in 2019, Randy recruited me to help turn this program around and get to the tournament. So when we did get to the tournament for the first time ever, I was unable to play. That was really tough. The group of girls we had last year inspired me every day to get back out there with them. They’re the definition of best friends. I was so proud of them and very happy, despite not being able to contribute on the field.”

Meanwhile, despite being on the pitch, Minas was vocal and helpful to teammates.

“I think the other captains and non-captains did a great job stepping up. In terms of leading, nothing changes,” she said. “On the side, I was yelling. I was trying my best to lead off the field, even though I wasn’t on the field impacting the game. This time, I get to lead and hopefully have a direct impact.”

Building off 2022 and expectations for 2023

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a saying plastered on the entrance of their locker room, big and bold, stating, “The Standard is the Standard.”

The talk around Pitt women’s soccer is that a new standard has been founded for the club. Landy Mertz, fifth-year player, was a big part of the 2022 team that made its first appearance in the ACC Tournament and the NCAA Tournament. Now, the standard is to be regulars in both tournaments — and advance far.

“Something our coaches talk a lot about this preseason is developing a culture of excellence and have it be multiple good years. We want that to be a standard,” Mertz said. “Last year, we were able to set a lot of benchmarks. But, I think our talent pool is even better this year. We have some girls coming back from injury this year, so that will make us better. I think that we need to use that as a stepping stone and use that as an expectation. We’ve done it, we’ve been there, so now we need to continue that.”

Ellie Coffield, local product from Mars, stepped up in a major way with Minas and West’s injuries.

“My biggest goal, and the team’s biggest goal, is to make it further than we did last year,” she said. “We know we’re capable of being a College Cup caliber team.” 

Coffield said that the biggest challenge this year will be seeing which players connect the best on the pitch.

“One thing that I’m most excited about… it can be a negative thing to view our deep roster, but the fun part is seeing who clicks where,” Coffield explained. “Only 11 people can play, but we have a big depth of talent. I am really excited to see how we can move the puzzle pieces to create the most successful team we can.” 

Mertz agreed, and said that the focus on working hard and connecting on and off the pitch will lead the Panthers to greatness.

“If you want to be excellent, if you want to be a top-tier program, you need to put the work in off the field, as well,” she said. “You want to work as hard as you can in games and practices, but you also want to show them who we are as people. Our coaches do a great job at recruiting amazing people, so developing that culture around being here to play soccer but also be the best at what we do.”

Waldrum echoed his players’ statements. 

“One of the things we talk about last year is that we don’t want to be a program that has one year of success and rebuilds. We want to maintain,” he said. “We talk a lot about excellence and how we handle the day-to-day. I would say, with a quiet confidence, that the expectation is now that. We’re finally in the mental place to not hope to win games, but expecting. With this group, that’s exactly where we’re at. They expect to get to the same point, but also progress from last year. The expectation level is really high.” 

Who will start in goal? 

With Lazzarini graduated, there is one returning player for the Panthers: sophomore Elliott Breech.

Technically, Emily Edwards is also a returning player, joining the Panthers in the spring season. However, Breech was throw into the fray during the ACC Tournament when Lazzarini tore her ACL against Florida State.

Another goalkeeper on the roster is freshman Emma Van Meter.

Waldrum said the goalkeeper competition has been good, and will mainly be between Breech and Edwards for who will start in between the sticks.

“It will be between Breech and Edwards for the starting spot,” he stated. “The nice thing about Ellie, she got games last year. She came into a very high-pressure situation against Florida State, with ‘Lazz’ tearing her ACL. It’ll be interesting to see how that competition continues to grow.”

Minas said watching the goalkeeper battle has been fun and she supports whoever is in goal.

“I think that’s what we need. We need competition,” Minas said. “If we’re complacent, we’re not getting anywhere. Whether it’s Emily Edwards, Emma or Breech, they’re fighting for the same position. It goes the same for the pitch as well. It’s necessary in a group to have that.” 

Pitt will open up their regular season on the road against Buffalo on Thursday, Aug. 17, at 7 p.m. The Panthers will host Drexel at Ambrose Urbanic Field on Sunday, Aug. 20, for their home opener at 1 p.m.

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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