Since Randy Waldrum took over the Pitt women’s soccer program in 2017, the talent-level on the team’s roster has significantly improved with each passing year.
In 2022, Pitt reached a breakthrough campaign, when the Panthers reached both the ACC Championship and the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history.
This season, they’ve taken another step forward, with one of the highest and most diverse scoring units in the nation and earning the program’s highest National ranking (11th in United Soccer Coaches poll) when it mattered most, at the end of the season.
“We’ve come a long way,” Waldrum said on Friday, prior to his team’s last training session before their first-round NCAA Tournament match vs Ohio State at Ambrose Urbanic Field (7 p.m. kickoff).
“In the first couple of years I was here, we were lucky to score a goal against some top ACC teams, but we’ve grown so much as a program.”
When Landy Mertz arrived at Pitt, after transferring from the University of Dayton, in 2021, she had to point to the small victories in battles against top-level teams.
“In that first year, if I could get a few good crosses in when we were playing against UNC or Florida State, that was a good thing,” Mertz said.
Now, the question is, how far can this program go in the NCAA Tournament?
“Even last year, with the success that we had, we were not ready to believe we were as good as we are. But this year, we’re just as good as any team we’ve played this season. We’re no longer just sitting back, and then will be hoping to counter,” Waldrum stated, then added.
“We especially believe that our front five is as good as any in the country,”
One of the reasons that the Panthers can make a case to go deep in the NCAA tournament, is that they’ve become even more elite and dynamic attacking unit that now has tournament experience, as Waldrum and his staff have utilized and found ways to get the most out of the collective group of players, using mostly a 3-4-3 formation this season.
In matches against the top teams, including Florida State, Clemson and North Carolina, on the road, the Panthers were on the front foot taking the match to each team for significant stretches of play.
“Our attackers all bring something different, that’s it’s hard for opponents to focus on stopping any one player,” Waldrum said.
“That changes everything. If you look at all the metrics from each of those matches, with maybe one exception, when we were outpossessed at North Carolina, we were always going forward in every match.”
And together, the Panthers’ have developed stronger team chemistry even as this season has developed.
“I don’t think there’s been one problem on the team,” Junior midfielder Sarah Schupansky said earlier this week on Soccer Queens Podcast.
“The captain’s make sure that everyone’s priorities are straight, and standards are high. Same with the (coaching) staff. They instill that competitive nature amongst us, that just makes us better, and never leads to any conflict among us.”
When looking at the stats, the Panthers are 14th overall with 51 goals, 8th in assists with 55 good for 2.75 per game; 1st in corners with 8.75 per game; 9th in points per game(3.75), and in the prestigious ACC, Pitt completed the season with an 8-0-1 record at home (6-4-0 on the road, with 0-1-0 in neutral site games).
In Pitt’s version of the 3-4-3, they’re almost always committing five players to the attack while there’s a solid rotation of five who cover underneath and focus more on defending.
However, what has made the Panthers even more dangerous beyond sending three talented forwards high into the attack, is the rotation of midfielders who have been giving opposing back lines headaches, as none can be left unmarked, Sarah Schupansky, Ellie Coffield and Deborah Abiodan, have been effectively covering for each other but fully capable of being clinical and dynamic in the box, as they’ll often alternate in making runs forward into the final third, while Chloe Minas also is often paired up with Coffield as the deeper holding mids.
In the earlier seasons of the program’s drastic improvement under Waldrum, talented players were added across the roster, however, when it came to the scoring load, Amanda West was the primary option during most of her first three seasons as a Panther.
“When teams were able to thrwart Amanda (West), back then,” Waldrum said. “Then it became very difficult for us to score.”
West returned for her fifth season with the team in 2023, after suffering a season-ending injury after playing just six games in 2022. With more talent at the top, West shifted over to become a left-sided attacking winger this season, allowing her to utilize both her deft scoring touch, but also play making skills.
West still is proving her valued place in Pitt women’s soccer history, as she has both the most career goals and assists, but remains best players in the country.
Her nine goals is third most on the team and her eight assists and 26 points are second most.
This is the fourth time that West has received All-ACC honors, making the Second Team back in 2020, while making the Third Team in 2021 and 2019.
She also scored her ninth goal of the season against North Carolina on October 29, which served as the go-ahead goal in overtime, to put Pitt into the semifinals of the ACC Tournament for the first time ever.
After suffering a tough injury in 2022, West came into her final season of eligibility without having to shoulder the load.
In fact, when you look at the All-ACC team awards handed out last week, Pitt had a program record five players honored, and all were key contributors to the attack: Schupansky (First Team), West (Second Team) and Mertz, Samiah Phiri, and Abiodun (Third Team).
Schupansky has been lights out this season with the ball at her feet anywhere in and around the box, becoming the first player in program history who has earned All-ACC First-Team honors. The former North Allegheny standout has hit double-digits in goals scored and assists (10 each), in a role as an attacking midfielder that she has embraced as this season has evolved.
— NCAA Soccer (@NCAASoccer) October 14, 2023
“Her ability to move into the midfield has helped us out quite a bit,” Waldrum explained. “This has allowed for us to use the three up front. She combines a lot of great qualities, both with her ball at her feet, in creating and extending possession, but also as a playmaker.”
Despite bagging more goals and assists than anyone on the team, Schupansky credits a team-oriented approach, and actually doesn’t feel the pressure to have to score most of the time.
“I’m thankful for the goals I’ve scored, and the teammates who set them up, from Samiah Phiri, to Amanda West, to Landy Mertz and to everyone else, I think we’re all capable of scoring,” Shupansky said, pointing out fellow Moe Rosensteel Award winner (and former Mars High School standout) Ellie Coffield is a dangerous threat from anywhere too.
“We have Ellie Coffield, who can shoot rockets from 50 yards away. Who ever has the ball in a danger in front of goal, so I am super confident that if one of us doesn’t get a goal, someone else will.”
TAKE A BOW, @elliecoffield1 🚀
Panthers are on the board first after Ellie launches the ball into the back of the net!
Pitt – 1, SYR – 0
📺 ACCNX pic.twitter.com/5wyNIycQ1s
— Pitt Women's Soccer (@Pitt_WSOC) October 14, 2023
Coffield, also a junior, has contributed a career five goals and two assists.
Phiri, who transferred to Pitt from Oklahoma State in 2022, who’s tied with Schupansky for the team lead with 10 goals, has provided the added element in being a dangerous center forward who can hold up the ball and draw defenders, while also be deadly clinical in the box and when needed, can get behind defenders too.
GOALLLLLL!!!@samiah80 puts the Panthers on the board first!
📺 ACCNX pic.twitter.com/wRqUKMjXSK
— Pitt Women's Soccer (@Pitt_WSOC) October 6, 2023
With Phiri’s size, Waldrum notes that many opponents may think she would not be as creative, but that’s far from the case.
“Samiah is extremely creative and deceptive in the box, on the ball,” Waldrum said.
“People may not realize how quick she is. She’s really grown a lot as a player in the past couple of years.”
With West out wide, Upper St. Clair native and fifth-year senior, Mertz, has provided equal dynamic play as the right attacking winger.
In the ACC quarterfinal match at North Carolina, it was Mertz who continuously wrecked havoc from the width, setting up goals from Coffield and West with pinpoint service.
PITT – 1, UNC – 0
📺 ACC Network pic.twitter.com/aMxNn340Lu
— Pitt Women's Soccer (@Pitt_WSOC) October 30, 2023
— Ellie Coffield (@elliecoffield1) October 30, 2023
When Mertz moves forward in the attack, she’s no longer just hoping to get in a few good crosses a game.
As a wide attacking player, Mertz doesn’t have any hesitation when taking on the best defenders on the best teams.
“I go after them,” Mertz stated. “We all have that mindset now.”
Mertz has been top-10 in the ACC for assists per game (0.47), shot accuracy (0.531), shots on goal per game (1.37) and total assists (9).
When West was injured last season, Mertz felt that she had to step up in terms of being a goal scoring threat, scoring six goals/five assists, but with this year’s group, she has been able to contribute as a playmaker with nine assists and three goals.
“I can play to my strengths with this team,” Mertz added. “I’ve accepted my role. If that means I have to score more, I’ve proven that I can do that, or if it means as a playmaker, I can do that too.”
Abiodun, a freshman from Nigeria, who played for her home country (also coached by Waldrum) in this summer’s Women’s World Cup, has also added to the mix as an excellent two-way player, that can go from box-to-box, but also has contributed four goals and three assists.
In addition to the starting eleven, fifth year midfielder Anna Bout has been a regular part of the rotation, also contributing four goals.
The competitive fire of this team is one of the things that makes them a special unit.
“We’re three months into the season, it can be tough, and we’re really tired, but we’re still competing in a PK shootout in training, we were trash-talking and having fun — and taking pictures with the sunset — it’s just a happy environment.”
With the start of the NCAA tournament, and Ohio State coming to Ambrose Urbanic Field, the Panthers are ready to go on the attack once again.
This time, they’ll face a Big 10 opponent that might offer a match-up that creates a contrast in styles.
The Buckeyes posted a 9-7-2 overall record – tying for sixth overall in the Big Ten Conference — as they fell to No. 19 Nebraska in quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament, 3-2.
Freshman Amanda Schlueter and Ava Bramblett secured the two goals for the Buckeyes.
“They can possess he ball, but most of the success they’ve had this season has come off the counter,” Waldrum said.
“They have pace out wide, and we’ll be well aware of this, but they’re the type of team that can grind out results. It will be a difficult game, so we’ll have to be really disciplined, but have to play our game.”
Pitt has already sold twice as many presale tickets than it usually does for games, so they’re expecting a big turnout at Ambrose Urbanic Field on Saturday night.
“Nothing compares to a Saturday night game at Ambrose (Urbanic Field),” Mertz said. “It’s even more special for those of us who are hometown girls. And I love playing on this field, as it’s wide and fits my strengths.”
Mertz, Schupansky and all of the Panthers are ready to play their game on Saturday night, and that means getting out on the front foot.
“We know the stakes are high, and every single game determines if our season continues, but we’re not approaching it any differently than any other game this season, because we’ve approached every game with a serious mindset. Ohio State is going to be a great opponent, and we’re going to have to show up.”