Panther sports stay active during summer break


Panther Pitt fans cheer for Pitt at a home game against UNC in November 2017. (TPN file photo)

By Nick Carlisano, Staff Writer

A hiatus in Pitt sports followed the summer heat, with little to no action occurring in June or July. That’s not to say the season was entirely uneventful, however, as both the softball and baseball teams capped off postseason runs in May while the men’s basketball and football teams stayed hot on the recruiting trail.

Softball Team and Baseball Team

Pitt’s baseball and softball teams had an eventful summer, with both making their way to the ACC Playoffs for their respective sports.

The softball team played its most successful season to date with a 33-18-1 record as ACC Coastal Champions. Though Pitt lost the championship game, the team gained several ACC honors, with former head coach Holly Aprile earning ACC Coach of the Year. Coach Aprile announced her resignation in mid-July, with intentions of accepting a head coach position at Louisville. Athletic Director Heather Lyke hired former Ohio University head coach Jodi Hermanek to replace Aprile Aug. 15.

The baseball team also outperformed its ACC Championship expectations, making its first ACC semifinals appearance in program history but ultimately falling short to Louisville. The loss put an end to the team’s record-breaking season under head coach Joe Jordano — one that would prove to be his last. Jordano announced his resignation on June 21 after 21 seasons as the head coach. Lyke announced former Florida State assistant Mike Bell as the new head coach on July 10. In addition, five Pitt baseball players were selected in the MLB draft. RJ Freure, Matt Pidich, Derek West, Liam Sabino and Yaya Chentouf have signed commitments to play the sport professionally.

Pitt Football Recruits

Pitt football coach Pat Narduzzi landed an astonishing nine football commitments on June 17, doubling the commitments already made that summer. The group is highlighted by a quartet of talent that will look to fill the gaps left by the Panthers’ current core of seniors.

Linebacker Leslie Smith was the first player this summer to commit to Pitt on June 10. Hailing from Miami Northwestern Senior High School, Smith recorded 90 tackles and double-digit sacks this past season as a junior. The addition of Smith addresses a future need at the linebacker position for the Panthers, with three seniors currently starting at linebacker.

Tight end Travis Koontz became the second player — and also the highest ranked, according to 247Sports — to commit to Pitt football. Koontz will return close to his home state of Ohio in 2019 after spending his first-year season at Los Angeles Pierce College and his second-year season at Ventura College, both California schools. Koontz is expected to immediately make an impact upon his arrival at a position that has recently experienced quite a bit of turnover.

Brandon Hill, Pitt’s second-ranked recruit, hails from Apopka, Florida, and committed to Pitt on June 17 over offers from 22 other schools. Hill is a 5-foot-11, 200-pound safety who is considered a three-star prospect by Rivals and 247Sports and a four-star prospect by ESPN. Hill’s aggressive, downhill playing style will make him a valuable asset to Pitt’s secondary, an area where the team has struggled in recent years.

Defensive end Brandon Mack — considered the Panthers’ third-ranked recruit— joined in with a commitment on June 17. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound native of Montgomery, Alabama, should add an imposing presence to Pitt’s defensive line — a unit that has shown promise in recent years under Narduzzi.

Pitt Basketball Commitments

Coach Narduzzi and the football team weren’t the only Panther squad that had a successful summer of recruiting. New basketball head coach Jeff Capel, formerly the associate head coach of ACC rival Duke, landed his inaugural commitment in four-star point guard Trey McGowens on April 24.

McGowens’ commitment set an early high standard for the direction of the Panthers under Capel. The talented 6-foot-4 point guard is ranked 83rd in the country in Rival’s national rankings, making him the highest-rated recruit since former head coach Jamie Dixon nabbed James Robinson and Steven Adams in 2012. McGowens earned this recognition his senior year at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia, averaging over 18 points, six assists, five rebounds and three steals a game.

A few weeks after McGowens chose Pitt, Capel landed another point guard in three-star recruit Curtis Aiken Jr., who attended nearby North Allegheny Senior High School and will be a preferred walk-on this season. He chose Pitt over Tennessee and TCU, the latter of which is led by former Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon. Aiken Jr.’s father, Curtis Aiken, also played for Pitt in the 1980s and was the school’s first McDonald’s High School All-American.

Au’Diese Toney is a 6-foot-6 small forward who chose the Panthers over Ole Miss, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech. He joined fellow guard McGowens as the second player ranked in the top 150 of the 2019 class to commit to Pitt. Toney made his decision while on a visit to Pitt and cited his admiration for coach Capel as one of the factors influencing his selection.

Despite only having the position for two months, Capel garnered the best recruiting class at Pitt since 2013. He is off to a great start in turning around a program that has struggled mightily in the past few years.