TPN File Photo
No. 2 Pitt (16-3) men’s soccer reached a program milestone Monday afternoon at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N. C., after defeating the No. 7 Washington Huskies (12-4) 3-0 to reach the College Cup for the first time in program history.
“Just very proud of the guys,” head coach Jay Vidovich said after the match. “Looking forward to the opportunity to compete in the semifinal.”
While the final score appears to reflect another dominant Pitt performance, the victory was far from a certainty — even in the closing minutes.
Pitt entered the Elite 8 matchup coming off of two dominant victories against Monmouth and UCF, winning those affairs by scores of 6-1 and 4-0, respectively. Washington entered the quarterfinal after a pair of 2-0 wins over Grand Canyon and Missouri State last week. With both teams sitting in the top 10 of the most recent NCAA poll, this match promised to be a competitive one.
The two powerhouses did not disappoint.
The match got off to a slow start, as both teams took some time to find their footing offensively. Pitt’s first quality chance came in the sixth minute when senior forward Alexander Dexter sent a crosser through the netfront, but couldn’t connect with a teammate to finish the pass. Moments later, graduate student defender Jasper Loeffelsend sent a strong shot on goal from the right side of the box which was saved by Washington sophomore goalkeeper Sam Fowler.
While both teams had their chances, neither were able to find the back of the net in the first half. For Pitt, sophomore midfielder Veljko Petkovic found the crossbar on a quality opportunity from on close while Washington senior defender Ryan Sailor also glanced a shot off the iron. Junior defender Charlie Ostrem set the Huskies up with numerous scoring chances, but Pitt continued to have an answer for the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year.
Pitt entered the second half having outshot the Huskies 6-1, but the match remained scoreless after 45 minutes.
Washington flipped the script early in the second half, putting the pressure on Pitt graduate student goalkeeper Nico Campuzano almost immediately.
Campuzano’s first save of the match came on an opportunity from Washington first-year midfielder Kalani Kossa-Rienzi fielding a deflection in front of the Pitt net, but was corralled by the Pitt goalkeeper. Ostrem had another chance for Washington early in the second half, but his strong shot from inside the box went wide.
After Pitt was able to escape the Washington barrage unscathed, the Panthers finally capitalized with a tally of their own.
Loeffelsend sent a cross through the box in the 52nd minute, finding the head of sophomore midfielder Valentin Noel and Pitt finally had something to show for their efforts as the Panthers took a 1-0 lead. The goal was Noel’s 14th of the season.
Washington dug in after the Pitt goal, and another wave of chances came from the Huskies midway through the second half when Ostrem delivered yet another stellar inlet pass off of a set towards the back post. The Huskies protested for a hand ball against the Panthers, but did so to no avail and were unable to capitalize as Pitt corralled the loose ball and were able to clear.
Washington’s best chance of the game came when junior midfielder Lucas Meek was able to get free in the box, but had his opportunity blocked by his own teammate just as the shot looked destined for the back of the net.
Washington saw another quality opportunity go by the wayside when junior midfielder Dylan Teves had a chance after streaking down the left side in the 87th minute, but his shot was met by Campuzano’s left hand in goal.
For every chance Washington had, Pitt had an answer.
“They were throwing the kitchen sink at us,” Vidovich said. “I thought our guys were exceptional in those difficult times.”
The following corner kick for Washington led to a counter attack from Pitt. Fowler was far off his line, allowing Bertin Jacquesson to shoot and score from near midfield, delivering the final dagger in a hard-fought affair.
Petkovic tacked on a highlight-reel goal for good measure, also from midfield, and as the ball floated over the head of Fowler, the Panthers knew they had booked their first College Cup appearance in program history after a valiant effort in the quarterfinal.
Campuzano has been a beacon of consistency all season for the Panthers, and Monday was no exception. The Panthers’ keeper finished with four saves on the day — registering his sixth clean sheet of the season and second in as many games, garnering Vidovich’s appraisal.
“Nico was huge today,” Vidovich said. “Coming off his line, his air game was fantastic, he managed the game… he was fantastic.”
Vidovich also praised the effort of depth pieces first-year forward Luke Mort and senior midfielder Matt Bailey — two players who applied pressure late in the match.
“These guys have been training all year and they’ve been known to step up,” Vidovich said. “They did a tremendous job when they came in.”
Pitt’s College Cup play will begin on Friday against the winner of Monday evening’s Seton Hall and Indiana match. With a win, the Panthers would advance to the National Championship Game next Monday — another first in a historic year for the Panthers.