Column | Volleyball, men’s soccer poised to expand on historic springs

Pitt+Volleyball+and+men%E2%80%99s+soccer+appear+primed+to+repeat+and+perhaps+improve+on+their+already+exceptional+2021+seasons.+Baseball+will+need+to+reload+before+they+can+one-up+their+last+record-setting+spring.

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Pitt Volleyball and men’s soccer appear primed to repeat and perhaps improve on their already exceptional 2021 seasons. Baseball will need to reload before they can one-up their last record-setting spring.

By Stephen Thompson, Senior Staff Writer

The academic calendar has turned — ushering in a new semester and new seasons for Pitt’s fall sports. Many teams emerged gracefully from the COVID-19 pandemic, but few are equipped to renew their success this year. Volleyball and men’s soccer are poised for historic seasons, while baseball will need to reload before it is back to competing on a national stage. 

Volleyball

Pitt volleyball is an easy choice. Where to begin?

Start with continuity at the top. This offseason head coach Dan Fisher lost just two players from a roster that made the deepest NCAA Tournament run in program history. And after leading the Panthers to an Elite Eight appearance last spring, two second team all-American seniors — outside hitters Kayla Lund and Chinaza Ndee — will exercise their NCAA-granted extra year of eligibility and return to Pitt for one last run.

Aiding Lund and Ndee is a deep roster of veterans. Junior setter Lexis Akeo is back after leading the Panthers in assists per set a season ago. So is sophomore outside hitter Chiamaka Nwokolo — an honorable mention all-American — and redshirt sophomore Valeria Vazquez Gomez, who was third on the team in kills. The Panthers return their top six scorers. 

The arrival of Penn State transfer Serena Gray, a two-time all-American middle blocker, and Missouri transfer Leketor Member-Meneh, a former all-SEC selection at outside hitter, are simply gravy for this already potent lineup. 

They have an ambitious schedule in front of them, particularly against non-conference opponents. Ten of their 29 games will be against opponents who ended 2021 receiving votes in the American Volleyball Coaches Association top-25, with six coming before conference play begins on Sept. 24. The Panthers will be tested immediately, but on paper seem more than equipped to meet the moment. 

After consecutive second-round exits from the NCAA Tournament in 2018 and 2019, Pitt finally broke through to make a statement on the national stage. Now it feels like “championship or bust.” 

Men’s Soccer

When he was done leading the Panthers to the College Cup, Jay Vidovich, the reigning ACC Coach of the Year, signed a contract extension that will keep him in Oakland as Pitt men’s soccer’s head coach through 2025. Vidovich, one of the most decorated coaches in college soccer history, will have bigger goals on his mind after making a deep postseason run with this Pitt program last year. 

Pitt neared the summit of the sport last spring. They made it to the College Cup but ultimately fell short in the semifinals to Indiana. Sophomore midfielder and 2020 first team all-American Valentin Noel tied for second in the country in scoring a season ago and is returning with an added responsibility to produce after senior defender Bryce Washington and senior forward Alexander Dexter, the third and fourth most prolific goal scorers on the team, departed after last season.  

Forward Bertin Jacquesson and midfielder Filip Mirkovic — two members of the College Soccer News’ All-Freshman team — will be expected to help pick up the slack. 

The defense did take a hit after the loss of Washington, who signed a professional contract with Atlanta United of the MLS, and graduate student Jasper Löeffelsend, who started 20 and 19 games, respectively. Löeffelsend also ranked fourth in the nation in assists with nine. He was followed closely by sophomore forward Veljko Petkovic, who tied for seventh nationally in assists with eight.

But there is still plenty of talent remaining and unfinished business for this program, which fell agonizingly short of the ACC title and a spot in the national championship game despite finishing the regular season ranked No. 1 in the United Soccer Coaches top-25 poll. 

Baseball

The Panthers appeared well on their way to their first NCAA Tournament berth in 26 years when a bout of COVID-19 struck the team in mid-April and forced a shutdown of team activities. They were never the same in the weeks after returning to play. 

Not only did they limp to a 3-8 finish over the final three weeks of play, they suffered roster turnover in the offseason that decimated a lineup that looked largely the same throughout the course of the season. 

Outfielder Nico Popa — who made 43 starts and batted .313 with nine home runs and 28 RBIs out of the second spot in the order — is gone. Second baseman David Yanni, the team leader in OPS and home runs who also holds the program record for career games played, graduated this past spring as well. 

The pitching staff was hit even harder. Closer Jordan McCrum, reliever Chris Gomez and spot-starter Stephen Hansen graduated. Set-up man Chase Smith transferred to West Virginia. And right-hander Mitch Myers, undeniably the ace of last year’s squad, was drafted in the 12th round of the MLB Draft and signed with the Oakland Athletics. Five of Pitt’s six arms with the most innings pitched in 2021 are no longer with the team. 

One of either talented first-year right-hander Tyler Kennedy or Penn State transfer Logan Evans will likely be expected to man the vacant starter spot, but that’s a tall ask of both the inexperienced players. 

Luckily for head coach Mike Bell, the Panthers return junior third baseman Sky Duff, and the two-man designated hitter-left fielder platoon of junior Ron Washington Jr. and sophomore Kyle Hess. The trio of Hess, Washington and Duff combined to bat .307 with 15 homers and 82 RBIs in 2021. Junior starting pitcher Matt Gilbertson is also back after going 6-5 with a 4.45 ERA and 1.29 WHIP over 13 starts. 

But with this year’s team there are more questions than answers. The concern is not that this team doesn’t have the talent to make another run at the postseason, but that they will have to lean on unproven players to do so. Last season was cause for optimism, but don’t expect the Panthers to earn a spot back in the national tournament.

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