2016-17 Sports: Minors might outdo majors


DB Jordan Whitehead has been named to multiple prestigious preseason awards watch lists for 2016. Wenhao Wu | Senior Staff Photographer

By Ryan Reichardt / Staff Writer

Although the gray Pittsburgh winter has passed, the fog surrounding the University of Pittsburgh’s sports teams remains.

After several major changes in the University’s big-name sports, including record-setting receiver Tyler Boyd’s departure to the NFL and Kevin Stallings taking over as the new men’s basketball head coach, the future of Pitt’s major sports programs seem shaky at best.

The football team will need second-year head coach Pat Narduzzi’s 2016 recruiting class to live up to expectations, but they can’t be expected to shoulder all of the load.

Now that Boyd has gone on to pursue a professional career with the Cincinnati Bengals, the team will probably lean on its defense. Defensive back Jordan Whitehead, a freshman All-American and the ACC Overall and Defensive Rookie of the Year last season, will lead the unit.

A big X factor for Pitt football will be the health of star running back James Conner, who recently announced that he is clean of cancer after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma on Thanksgiving Day 2015.

As a sophomore in 2014-2015, Conner broke former Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett’s single-season school record for touchdowns with 26 and was named ACC Player of the Year. Any carries he is able to provide after his battle with cancer would certainly be a welcome bonus for the team. And if he returns at full strength for the season opener September 3 — as he’s talked about — the Panthers’ running game would reclaim a powerful punch.

For the first time in 16 years, the Panthers are preparing to take on the in-state rival Penn State Nittany Lions September 10. The last time the teams met on the field was 2000, when the Panthers ousted Penn State 12-0 at the old Three Rivers Stadium.

Campus Insiders ranks both teams just outside the post-spring preseason top 25, with Penn State at No. 33 and Pitt at No. 41. The Nittany Lions face some uncertainty heading into the season as well, having lost their starting quarterback Christian Hackenberg to the 2016 NFL Draft.

On the hardwood, Pitt prepares for a new era in its first season with Stallings at the helm.

His hiring didn’t come without its share of controversy. Panthers fans took to Twitter in outrage after news of the former Vanderbilt head coach’s signing was released to the public.

After another early exit in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament last year, a fresh start might be what the team needs to return to the days when it was considered a perennial contender.

Still, Stallings didn’t achieve any more success in the NCAA Tournament during his time at Vanderbilt than Jamie Dixon did at Pitt. Stallings’ hire is not likely to immediately propel Pitt basketball back into a national powerhouse, especially competing in the loaded ACC.

The team may be harboring hope, but the fans seem to lack faith.

Meanwhile, Pitt’s non-revenue sports teams are moving forward with some changes of their own, sans the high-profile media coverage.

Pitt men’s soccer got a new coach late last season when Joe Luxbacher abruptly retired after 32 seasons with the team.

The Panthers went 3-3 in spring games last year under the leadership of new head coach Jay Vidovich — only the third men’s soccer coach in program history. With four home matches scheduled against ACC opponents and a match in State College, Pennsylvania to renew another rivalry with the Nittany Lions, the Panthers are looking at a spectacle of a season.

Incoming freshmen weren’t even born the last time Pitt played Penn State in men’s soccer in 1994.

Also on the non-revenue front, Pitt’s softball and women’s tennis teams were ousted in the first round of their respective ACC Tournaments in 2016. Still, both managed to exceed expectations.

Softball finished the season three wins shy of tying the team’s single-season wins record at 31-21, while women’s tennis finished 7-14. Despite playing in the stacked ACC, both of these teams — powered by young, returning leaders — have reasons to get excited in 2016-17.

The new year could be a big one for Pitt’s non-revenue sports, tacking on the future success of the volleyball, wrestling and baseball teams.

But with so many question marks lingering for football and basketball, Pitt’s major sports programs might be another year away from returning to
national glory.

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