The Pitt men’s soccer team only managed to score 12 goals in the entire season last year. This year, the team had 12 goals before October.
Stats like these show how far the team has come in its second year with head coach Jay Vidovich, who has lead Pitt to an 8-8 record so far this season, with three wins over ranked opponents.
“We’re discovering ourselves. I just hope we’re setting the foundation for future success that we can keep doing better,” Vidovich said.
Turnarounds such as this are nothing new to Vidovich, who previously spent time as an assistant coach at Wake Forest — one of the best programs nationwide, currently ranked second in the country.
When he arrived in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Wake Forest University had no history of success in soccer and no fan base to speak of. By the time he left in 2014, the Demon Deacons had won five ACC regular season titles and one national title in 2007. Now, he wants to recreate this fan base and success at Pitt.
“We did the same thing [at Wake Forest] with growing the fan base where it’s only like three and a half thousand students, but we were one of the top five attendance leaders in the country at all times. I see a lot of things we can do [at Pitt],” Vidovich said.
Vidovich also attributes the success of the team to the experience and talent that has been brought in since he arrived. He focused on increasing the talent to compete with the other schools in the conference and instilling a winning culture.
“We needed talent that could compete in the ACC, so one objective was to increase the talent pool as quickly as possible,” Vidovich said. “The thing we were able to change quickly was the culture of the program. How we were going to do things, how we were going to work, how we were going to operate, our accountability and our ambition, and that’s something we started on from day one.”
Vidovich knew the values he wanted to instill in his players, he just needed to find people who could enhance those values in the rest of the soccer team. He searched for players he could trust to lead the team. He found his guys not only by recruiting, but by bringing in transfers such as senior Bryce Cregan.
Just as Vidovich did, Cregan came from a successful program at Akron, currently the 14th-ranked team in the country. It was this experience that made Cregan a prospective recruit to Vidovich.
“[He’s] a young man who had a good pedigree in the game and had been in a place where there is an accountability and a performance standard and an ambition to win championships,” Vidovich said.
Cregan, this year’s team captain, is one of the holdovers from last year’s team that went 2-13-3. Even after finishing a season with that record, he had faith in Vidovich’s ability to get Pitt on the right path quickly.
“I knew that with Coach — and who he is as a person — that last year was a rough year for myself and him because we both hate losing,” Cregan said. “I knew that was not going to happen again, and I knew he was capable of turning this around.”
But Vidovich wasn’t the only person responsible for turning around the team’s mentality and reputation. Cregan’s experience helps balance out a team full of young stars. The three leading goal scorers for Pitt this season are all first-year forwards — Colin Brezniak, Edward Kizza and Alexander Dexter.
Kizza, a native of Uganda and graduate of Montverde Academy, didn’t feel like an outsider during his transition to a member of the Pitt men’s soccer team. He appreciated the value impact players such as Cregan had on developing the camaraderie of the team.
“The main thing for us has been togetherness as a group,” Kizza said. “Everyone brings something to the team.”
The more experienced players display poise on the field, leading the way for their teammates to excel. While Kizza can’t necessarily bring this sense of maturity, he has brought four goals to the team this season, including the first goal in Pitt’s 2-1 victory over No. 21 Syracuse Sept. 29. According to Kizza, that game was the moment he knew there was something special about this year’s team.
“I think that one win, it showed something,” Kizza said. “It showed that everyone had fight on the team. Everyone was involved in the win.”
Kizza knows that bigger teams haven’t feared Pitt soccer in the past. So, winning these games hasn’t only impacted the team at the player level, it’s changed the team’s reputation. Now Kizza feels as though teams are taking notice of the Panthers.
“When you talk about last season, everyone knew that game [against Pitt] is going to be an easy game,” Kizza said. “I feel like even the biggest teams right now are scared of playing against us.”
Despite what the players and other teams may think about Pitt’s successful turnaround, Vidovich isn’t satisfied with where the program is just yet. That drive for greatness may be part of what makes Vidovich a five-time ACC Coach of the Year.
“In some ways, I hoped to be further along last year, or I hoped to be further along now,” Vidovich said. “I still think I’m a little behind where my plans were.”
One area he’d like to see continue to grow is fan support. The Panthers’ success has already started to draw crowds, but Vidovich thinks the Pitt community could still embrace the team and the sport more.
“We’re far behind, our fan base is far behind. I don’t believe Pittsburgh at this point is a soccer city, but neither was Winston-Salem when I went there,” Vidovich said. “I can’t tell you how exciting it was to see people in the stands and surrounding the field and be into the game. We want to grow the game here.”
If the plan is to get members of the Pitt community interested, a winning season that has included wins over Penn State, No. 21 Syracuse and No. 7 Notre Dame isn’t a bad way to start.