Column | The top five Pitt programs to watch in 2021

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Lucas Zheng | Staff Photographer

Ahead of a 2021-22 school year where many of Pitt’s teams have lofty hopes, senior staff writer Kyle Saxon ranks the top five athletic programs to watch next year.

By Kyle Saxon, Senior Staff Writer

Pitt Athletics’ storied history often plays a factor in a student’s decision to join the Panther family. New students usually have a vision of taking in a football game at Heinz Field or being a part of the Oakland Zoo before they even set foot on campus.

But while Pitt may be best known for its history of football and basketball success, some of its most exciting programs receive much less publicity than they deserve. Over the past year, several Panther teams reached unprecedented heights and are poised to find even more success in the coming season.

Here are the Top 5 Pitt programs to watch in 2021-22.

5. Baseball

In a 2021 season in which it was projected to finish last in the ACC, Pitt baseball made tremendous strides as a program. Despite an abrupt end to their season after barely missing an NCAA Tournament berth, the Panthers enter the 2022 season with a strong returning core and the most excitement surrounding the team in years.

Pitt played just 16 games in 2020 before the pandemic cut the season short. With a 2020 roster that featured 21 new players and a low level of collective experience, the program’s expectations for 2021 were almost entirely unknown. The last place preseason projection exemplified the struggles Pitt baseball had suffered through since joining the ACC –– but their eventual 23-20 finish to the 2021 campaign showed the dramatic progress that head coach Mike Bell has made in just three full seasons.

Following a 22-12 start, the Panthers seemed poised to host a regional round of the NCAA Tournament but a head-scratching 1-8 finish to the year left Pitt disappointed on selection day. Despite the disappointing final stretch of the season, the Panthers will return the majority of their core in 2022, with the potential for some surprise returns from seniors that choose to exercise their extra year of eligibility.

After amassing a program best 16 ACC wins, the Panthers are on an upward trajectory. New students should be sure to know the location of Charles L. Cost Field –– when the weather warms up in spring of 2022, it’ll be the place to be on campus.

4. Women’s Soccer

Pitt women’s soccer made incremental progress over head coach Randy Waldrum’s first two seasons –– in his third season at the helm in 2020-21, his team made a massive leap.

Waldrum inherited a program that had not won an ACC game in two seasons prior to his arrival in 2018. Last season, his squad totaled the most wins in program history and finished with an 11-5 overall record. Pitt had just one senior on their 2020-21 roster and will return the overwhelming majority of a talented core. While the Panthers posted a record of just 3-5 in conference play, Ambrose Urbanic Field will be one of the most feared destinations for opposing teams next season.

Among returning players is junior forward Amanda West, who emerged as perhaps the best individual player in the country this past season, leading the country in goals, points and game-winning goals. After another year of experience and growth, the Panthers should expect 2021-22 to be their best season in school history.

3. Football

The 2020 season was one of lofty expectations for Pitt football. But after their roster and schedule were turned upside down by the pandemic, the Panthers finished with a very average record of 6-5. While the 2021 campaign initially appeared to be a year of rebuilding, the surprise return of star senior quarterback Kenny Pickett completely changed Pitt’s outlook for this season.

Despite losing six tremendous defensive players to the NFL this offseason, Pitt’s defense will still be the strength of its team. While the 2021 defense will feature several new starters, the Panthers are loaded with young depth on the defensive line and in the secondary, all while returning their entire core of veteran linebackers.

Offensively, Pitt will have the advantage at the quarterback position over most teams it will face and return the vast majority of its dynamic young playmakers, including sophomore wide receiver Jordan Addison. While the offensive line is rebuilding, there is no reason to believe it will hold the Panther offense back from improving on their 2020 campaign.

While the team will look very different after 2021, new students can arrive at Heinz Field with high hopes for this season. With fans back in the stadium, Pitt’s most decorated athletic program is poised for a great year.

2. Men’s Soccer

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Pitt men’s soccer will be one of the best teams on campus this year. After posting their best season in program history, the Panthers have a very reasonable chance to return to the College Cup and contend for a national championship in 2021-22.

Pitt’s historic season featured a 16-4 record and an undefeated mark at Ambrose Urbanic Field. While head coach Jay Vidovich will have plenty of familiar faces on his roster this season, Pitt did lose a few players that were essential to its historic season, namely defenders Jasper Löeffelsend and Bryce Washington, as well as goalkeeper Nico Campuzano and forward Alexander Dexter.

Even with these departures, the Panthers still return star junior forward and MAC Hermann Trophy finalist Valentin Noel along with a plethora of players who earned All-ACC honors and contributed to the team’s magical run this past year. Pitt should open and finish the 2021-22 season ranked as one of the best teams in the country. The only stipulation preventing the Panthers from sitting atop this list is the relative uncertainty surrounding how they will fill the void of some crucial players.

1. Women’s Volleyball

Pitt’s most successful program in recent history is in a position to have perhaps their best season yet this upcoming season.

After claiming three consecutive ACC championships from 2017-2019, Pitt volleyball took a slight step back by their standards in 2020-21. But after earning an NCAA Tournament berth, the Panthers proved they were still among the best teams in the country with a run to the regional final. This performance is a significant landmark for the program, as general struggles in the NCAA Tournament had marred the seasons in which Pitt won the ACC and was ranked as one of the best teams in the country.

While head coach Dan Fisher consistently has some of the best talent in the country on his roster, this year will be unique–– two-time ACC Player of the Year Kayla Lund and fellow All-ACC first-teamer Chinaza Ndee will both exercise their extra year of eligibility in 2021. With a growing roster around them as well as some high-level newcomers, Pitt’s 2021 roster could be Fisher’s best group yet.

Many Panther fans have thrown around the term “Volleyball School,” and that term will be used more than ever this year. New students should start to plan out their trips to Fitzgerald Field House now, as Pitt volleyball might just be the best show on campus in 2021.

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