Panthers prep for historic home tournament match


Joy Cao | Staff Photographer

Edward Kizza (9) maneuvers around Duke’s Brandon Williamson (19). On Thursday night, Pitt men’s soccer will play in the NCAA tournament for the first time in 54 years.

By Ben Bobeck, Senior Staff Writer

1965 was an eventful year both around the world and right here at Pitt. The University was in talks to become a state-related institution, Chancellor Edward Litchfield resigned and the men’s soccer team appeared in the NCAA National Tournament for the second time in four years.

The five decades since have seen Pitt boast national championships in football and women’s gymnastics, multiple Nobel laureates and incredible innovations in medicine and technology. But for all the success throughout the University, there was one glaring hole in Pitt’s list of accolades — its men’s soccer team never returned to the NCAA tournament during that 54-year span.

That all will change Thursday night, when the Panthers (9-7-2 overall, 4-3-1 ACC) host the Lehigh Mountain Hawks (13-4-3 overall, 6-0-3 Patriot League) in the first round of the National Championship Tournament at Ambrose Urbanic Field. It is the Panthers’ third tournament appearance in program history and first since that 2-0 loss to East Stroudsburg on Nov. 22, 1965, in Pitt Stadium.

Junior forward Edward Kizza paced an at times stagnant Panther offense, but stout defensive organization under fourth-year head coach and 2007 national champion Jay Vidovich buoyed Pitt through a tough backend of the season. The Panthers were ranked no. 32 nationwide in RPI which accounts for a team’s wins and losses, as well as overall strength of schedule. 10 of Pitt’s season opponents made the tournament last season, and after opening the seasons at then no. 2 Indiana, faced six additional teams ranked in the latest United Soccer Coaches Poll and six additional teams who either received votes or were ranked in past polls. 

Kizza had another prolific season in front of the goal after scoring 15 last season, netting 11 goals and four assists, including both tallies in Pitt’s 2-1 victory in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament at Ambrose Urbanic Field on Nov. 10. The Ugandan native earned All-ACC First Team honors, and was named to the ACC All-Tournament team alongside his teammate and first-year defender Arturo Ordonez.

As a conference, the ACC is well-represented in the tournament with 10 overall entries, including four top-10 seeds and three regional hosts in Clemson, Wake Forest and the overall top seed Virginia, which emerged victorious in the ACC Tournament.

Pitt had a strong showing against Clemson in the semi-finals of that competition, losing 1-0, and beat Virginia in Charlottesville in mid-October. That 2-0 win for the Panthers was the Cavaliers’ lone loss of the season and certainly cemented Pitt as a team that could compete at the highest level of the college game.

The Panthers will welcome the Patriot League champion Lehigh in their first-round match. The Mountain Hawks, led by coach Dean Koski in his 28th season, went unbeaten in the Patriot League to claim their first conference title since 2015. The Mountain Hawks will be making their fourth NCAA Tournament appearance under Koski and fifth overall.

Lehigh is led by Wexford native and North Allegheny High School graduate sophomore forward Josh Luchini, the Patriot League Offensive Player of the Year. The Mountain Hawk’s offense had a total output of 25 goals on the season, with the 2017 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette High School Player of the Year Luchini responsible for more than half — scoring 11 goals himself while adding 2 assists.

At the other end of the pitch, Lehigh’s defense is anchored by senior GK Will Smith. Smith also earned all-conference accolades for his performances in net this season, and was named 2019 Patriot League Goalkeeper of the Year. Smith was the conference leader in save percentage with 86.2%, total saves with 87 and shutouts with 10.

Also on the roster for the Mountain Hawks is junior forward Bratislav Petkovic, the elder brother of Pitt first-year standout Veljko Petkovic. The elder Petkovic has tallied one goal in eight appearances this season after scoring three goals and two assists his freshman season. For Pitt, Veljko has surpassed his brother’s total scoring with six goals and five assists in his first campaign as a Panther.

Thursday will mark the second all-time meeting between the Hawks and Panthers, with Pitt winning the first 3-0 back in 2015. The winner of Thursday’s match will go on to face the No. 3 seed Georgetown (15-1-3, 7-0-2 in Big East play) in the second round at the Hoya’s Shaw Field in Washington, D.C., on Sunday, Nov. 24.

View the entire 2019 NCAA DI Men’s Soccer Championship Bracket here