Despite falling just short in 2021, Panthers poised for long-term success

Pitt+men%E2%80%99s+soccer+head+coach+Jay+Vidovich+displayed+immense+pride+in+the+progress+his+team+made+after+their+season+ended+at+the+hands+of+No.+3+Indiana+in+the+College+Cup.

Lucas Zheng | Staff Photographer

Pitt men’s soccer head coach Jay Vidovich displayed immense pride in the progress his team made after their season ended at the hands of No. 3 Indiana in the College Cup.

By Kyle Saxon, Senior Staff Writer

The emotions that typically accompany a loss in the national semifinal are shock, disappointment and heartbreak. But for Pitt men’s soccer, these feelings didn’t linger — instead, the notions of progress and optimism prevailed. 

When head coach Jay Vidovich and junior midfielder and captain Jackson Walti spoke to the media after their season ended at the hands of No. 3 Indiana in the College Cup, their words were far from somber. Despite the devastation of the moment, Vidovich displayed immense pride in the progress his team made and how his players fought to the end after an abnormal year.

“The growth of our program, the quality of our bench now growing, people coming in and helping us out,” Vidovich said. “The way the guys competed all the way through the end, and didn’t give up and didn’t choke in the situation … I thank them for their efforts, and I thank my staff and the administration for everything they’ve done to help us grow to this level.”

While every collegiate program certainly dealt with unprecedented obstacles this season, the Panthers had to overcome more than just the struggles of playing during a pandemic. After winning its first tournament game in school history in 2019 and returning the vast majority of a developing roster, Pitt was struck with a seemingly devastating blow –– the departure of their top goal scorer and one of the best players in the ACC, senior forward Edward Kizza.

The University announced that Kizza would be leaving the program after missing the first two games of the regular season. Pitt Athletics didn’t give an indication as to why one of the ACC’s top scorers would be leaving the team, leaving many scratching their heads.

Despite a 2-0 record to start the season, Pitt was left without their main difference-maker and most consistent source of offense up top — a cloud of uncertainty surrounded the Panthers just days into their campaign.

Enter sophomore forward Valentin Noel

The France native showed promise in the attacking midfield as a first-year and earned All-ACC Freshman honors, and stepped into the central striker role in Pitt’s formation after Kizza’s abrupt departure from the program. Eight months and 20 matches later, Noel finished the season as the ACC Offensive Player of the Year, leading the conference in goals and points, and a finalist for the MAC Hermann Trophy, awarded to the nation’s top player.

Noel’s emergence as one of the best players in the country is far from the sole reason for Pitt’s success. In fact, much of the reason Noel scored an eye-popping 14 goals was not due to his remarkable ability to beat defenders one-on-one, but rather a tribute to the chemistry of Pitt’s offense as a whole.

Pitt carried two more sophomores that earned All-ACC Freshman team honors in 2019 along with Noel — defender Arturo Ordoñez and midfielder Veljko Petkovic. The pair of sophomores played a pivotal role in building attacks. Senior defender Bryce Washington and forward Alexander Dexter solidified the team along with Walti, providing years of experience in Vidovich’s system.

Despite the exceptional play from all of these excellent returners, what really pushed Pitt over the top was their tandem of newcomers on the right side of the pitch.

Graduate student fullback Jasper Löeffelsend brought experience and intelligence to the right back position after the departure of Nyk Sessock. Löeffelsend not only specialized in thwarting attacks down his side of the field, but also in catalyzing the dangerous Panther counterattack. He finished the season as the ACC’s leader in assists as well as earning ACC Defensive Player of the Year and First Team All-ACC honors. Löeffelsend manned the right side with first-year forward Bertin Jacquesson on the wing, who consistently showcased an unbelievable ability to beat defenders one-on-one down the sideline and finished third in the conference in assists.

With arguably the best offense in the country and an extremely stout backline, the Panthers appeared to be unbeatable in the fall –– and for the first seven games, they were. But the Panthers’ unbeaten start came to an end when it mattered most — losing to an excellent Clemson team in the ACC Tournament championship game.

After a disappointing end to the fall slate, the Panthers shifted their focus to the College Cup, as well as introducing new faces to the team. First-year players midfielder Luke Mort and forward Luke Peperak became cornerstones for the Panther bench, consistently contributing quality minutes throughout the spring.

After a 3-0 blowout loss at the hands of North Carolina in their first conference match of the spring, the Panthers went on perhaps their best stretch of soccer all season, winning their next five matches by a combined score of 14-4 and shutting out their final two opponents of the season. Vidovich proudly watched his team develop from an offensive-centric squad to a far more balanced team over the year, and spoke about this development after Pitt’s loss to Indiana.

“We were able to grow, from every loss,” he said. “I don’t think anyone would want to see us in the next game, if we had another game, because we would grow. It happened throughout this tournament, it happened throughout the season.”

After winning the ACC Coastal division, the Panthers were given another shot at Clemson, this time with the chance to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The healthier and more balanced Panthers looked to show the ultimate sign of growth by beating the team that caused their fall slate to end in disappointment.

But Pitt was dealt a 2-0 loss by the Tigers in a match that was relatively non-competitive.

Coming off of this exposing loss, Pitt earned the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and a chance to write off any sense of doubt their bad day against the Tigers may have created.

The Panthers entered with just one NCAA Tournament win in school history and the weight of national championship expectations on their shoulders. Pitt responded by winning its first three matches with a combined score of 13-1, including a 3-0 victory over No. 7 Washington to reach its first College Cup in program history.

Pitt dominated play against Indiana, but just could not find the back of the net. For seniors such as Dexter and Washington that may have played their last match for the Panthers, being so close to a national title and coming up short presented a devastating reality. But for players like Walti, Pitt’s landmark 2020-21 season is only the beginning for an emerging powerhouse soccer program.

“This year was a phenomenal step up,” he said. “We did a lot of growing up, a lot of maturing, and we played some of the best soccer in the country, and we showed that we’re not just here for a short stint at the top. We’re here to stay.”

Vidovich inherited the program at its lowest point, without the resources or talent to even stay afloat in the ACC standings. In just five seasons since taking over, he led Pitt to a College Cup. While their first appearance did not result in a national championship, Vidovich expressed an abundance of optimism about the future after their last match.

“When we started practicing in August we didn’t know if we were going to have a season, if we’d have a game or if we’d be practicing all year,” he said. “Fortunately, the leadership of the ACC decided we would have a season. What an opportunity to grow and mature, and I think the long-term effects for our team will be tremendous.”

The manner in which Pitt’s season ended should in no way undermine the successes it attained this season. Pitt went from worst to first in the ACC in just five years, and now clearly have some of the highest-level talent in the country to build from moving forward.

There may not be a way to adequately describe the strides that Vidovich has taken in his tenure at Pitt. With the trajectory the Panthers are currently headed on, high seeds and College Cup appearances will soon become an expectation. While a loss is never a source of excitement, there is certainly plenty for the Panther faithful to be excited about in the future of Pitt men’s soccer. The University of Pittsburgh can now take an immense sense of pride in its men’s soccer program, and after all, that is what Vidovich came to establish.

“Coming to a place where it hadn’t been done before, and to come to a city like this, and try to make people proud of what we’re trying to do, it’s just a great opportunity,” he said. “I’m just very, very proud of what the kids have paved and what they’ve done to get us here.”

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