Clare Sheedy | Staff Photographer
Pitt women’s soccer played its final game of the season against Kentucky on Monday, defeating the Wildcats 4-1 to earn a final 2020-21 record of 11-5 (3-5 ACC). The Panthers’ 11 wins in 16 games surpasses the program record for most victories in a women’s soccer season — 10 in 18 games in 2015. Pitt head coach Randy Waldrum appreciated the accomplishment but explained that this represents a mere step toward the ultimate goal.
“I think it’s really about the growth of the program,” Waldrum said. “There’s always going to be a new benchmark. Until we’re winning national championships, we’ve always got something to strive for.”
— Pitt Women's Soccer (@Pitt_WSOC) March 29, 2021
The record didn’t look so attainable in the first 30 minutes of the match. Kentucky got most of the shot opportunities, but none of them found the back of the net. Errant passes that turned into goal kicks cut Pitt’s chances short, and the team’s corner kicks all ended up in the hands of Kentucky senior goalkeeper Brooke Littman.
The Panthers finally broke through in the 33rd minute. Sophomore forward Amanda West cut through multiple defenders with the ball, threading the needle to first-year midfielder Emily Yaple, who squeezed past the defense and sent her shot into the net. West found an open midfielder again 10 minutes later when junior Celia Lopez received her setup and found twine with what would be the game-clinching goal. The half ended with the Panthers leading 2-0.
Waldrum admitted that Pitt started off slowly, but he saw the slow start as a more mental aspect of the game.
“I think it was two teams trying to feel each other out,” he said. “It was a little bit of a chess match early, not trying to make the first mistake. But I feel we really got it going with the way we played after 20 minutes or so.”
The second half also started off quite slow, but both squads had opportunities to score. Sophomore defender Athalie Palomo took a shot from the 18-yard box in the 54th minute, but Littman jumped and sent the shot over the crossbar. The ensuing corner kick hit the outside of the net for a goal kick. Kentucky senior forward Julia Grosso’s attempt went straight into the hands of Pitt sophomore goalkeeper Caitlyn Lazzarini a few minutes later.
A Panther shot got past Littman in the 58th minute, but a Wildcat defender pushed it aside. Sophomore forward Leah Pais collected the deflection and put it into the net, extending the Panthers’ lead to three goals.
Pitt would only get two more really good chances to score. Palomo went for goal on a free kick in the 71st minute, but Littman swallowed it. Kentucky then put up three shots — two of them saved by Lazzarini, and the third sailing wide of the net. Lazzarini finished the day with five saves.
The Panthers scored their fourth and final goal in the 85th minute. West drove toward the goal, crossed the ball past a defender and right to the foot of sophomore midfielder Landy Mertz, who put it in the back of the net for her third goal in two games at Pitt. Mertz emphasized the importance of stepping up during her limited time on the field.
“I didn’t really know what to expect,” she said. “For me to get the opportunity to not only play and get minutes, but also to score goals and make an impact, I just feel really lucky.”
Mertz’s goal also marked West’s third assist of the match. Waldrum later retweeted the video of that goal with a positive spin toward the future.
Gonna be a lethal combination! https://t.co/JnPHIPbWCA
— Randy Waldrum (@CoachWaldrum) March 29, 2021
The Wildcats wouldn’t leave Pittsburgh shut out, though. Kentucky sophomore forward Jordyn Rhodes used her head to give her team its only goal with just two minutes left to play. It would prove not nearly enough, and the Panthers claimed the victory 4-1.
With the regular season over, and the conference tournament completed in the fall, the only event remaining in college soccer is the College Cup in Cary, North Carolina. The Panthers must now hope that their resumé impresses the selection committee enough to earn an at-large bid. Both Mertz and Waldrum believe that Pitt has shown it deserves a postseason spot, but they can’t do anything else at the moment.
“I do think they want it really bad,” Mertz said. “My teammates did most of the work for the season, I was only here for two of the games, but we will definitely use this as fuel for next year.”
Waldrum felt that the team’s strength of schedule should help the team’s case for one of those coveted at-large opportunities.
“With 48 teams and 33 at-large bids, it doesn’t leave much room for teams to get in,” he said. “But we’re 11-5, we don’t have a bad loss on our record and after watching other conferences, I know that we’re a much better team than those that will be in the tournament.”
The Panthers went 6-1 at home this year and 5-4 on the road, and they won all eight of their non-conference games. But College Cup or not, Pitt will go into next season with a young, hungry roster, which Mertz predicted will bring big things next year.
“A lot of [next year’s] freshmen are already here,” she said. “I think that’s really beneficial, because next fall there won’t be a period where we have to get used to all the new girls. We can just hit the ground running.”
The selection of teams for the College Cup will take place on April 19.