Tracking marquee matchups of the fall semester for Pitt athletics

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Sam Alburger | Staff Photographer

Now that Panther fans can return to the stands, there are a few dates that they should circle from multiple sports, such as men’s and women’s soccer.

By Stephen Thompson, Sports Editor

Pitt athletics announced two weeks ago that they would hold on-campus events without attendance restrictions this fall. Now that Panther fans can return to the stands, there are a few dates they should circle. Some of the best in the country at their respective sports are traveling to Oakland this semester, and Pitt’s venues will host some high-leverage matchups.

Volleyball

The Panthers are loaded. Head Coach Dan Fisher said after the team’s Blue-Gold scrimmage on Aug. 14 that this was “the most [talented]” team he’s ever had at Pitt and that is more than just blind praise.

They return three All-Americans plus the core of a 2020 Elite Eight team — the first in school history. Sprinkle in a couple of decorated power-conference transfers and you’ve got a squad ready to meet the challenging schedule that stands in front of them. The Panthers will play seven teams that received votes in the American Volleyball Coaches Association Preseason Coaches’ Poll.

Sept. 10 vs. BYU, 7 p.m. on ACC Network Extra — this Friday night contest vs. the No. 15 Cougars is the headliner of the Panther Challenge, which Pitt hosts annually at the Fitzgerald Field House on campus. Of the three games Pitt will play that weekend, BYU will prove to be the biggest challenge.

BYU bulldozed the West Coast Conference last year, as they have ever since joining the league in 2011, en route to their seventh conference title of the last decade. And like Pitt, they only got stronger. All-Americans in graduate student middle blocker Kennedy Eschenberg, junior setter Whitney Bower and senior outside hitter Taylen Ballard-Nixon will be supported by middle blocker Kenzie Koerber, a three-time All-American and graduate transfer from rival Utah, and the No. 7 recruiting class in the country, according to VolleyballMag.com. 

Nov. 24 vs. Louisville, 7 p.m. on ACC Network — the Panthers’ final regular season match falls on Senior Day at the Fitzgerald Field House. Some of the players who helped build the program from middling to dominant — like fifth-years Kayla Lund and Chinaza Ndee, as well as true senior Sabrina Starks and graduate student Kylee Levers — will be honored for their contributions over the years and a high-stakes volleyball match will follow. 

No. 13 Louisville’s been one of the few competitors to Pitt’s recent run of dominance in the ACC. The Cardinals have ended the regular season no lower than third in the conference standings four years running. Expect an ACC title to hang in the balance when Louisville visits Oakland. 

Men’s soccer

Pitt soccer’s rise has been fast and furious. Under the leadership of head coach Jay Vidovich, the program has blossomed from a squarely mediocre squad to national title contender in a matter of just a few years. Preseason No. 3 Pitt, runner-up to the ACC and National titles last season, will try to rinse the poor taste of its sour ending in the national championship game versus Indiana with another run at the College Cup.

Sept. 10 vs. North Carolina, 7 p.m. on ACC Network Extra — to repeat their success this season, the Panthers will need to contend with a difficult regular season slate. Pitt has five members of the United Soccer Coaches Preseason Poll top 15 on their 2021 schedule this season and they’ll play four of them during the month of September alone. 

The Panthers will face a brutal four-game stretch against teams ranked in the top 11 of the United Soccer Coaches Preseason Poll from Sept. 10 to 25. It kicks off with a Friday night game versus No. 4 North Carolina, also this year’s ACC opener, inside the friendly confines of Ambrose Urbanic Field. The Panthers will hope to get off on the right foot against the most difficult stretch of their season by topping the Tar Heels at home. 

Women’s Soccer

Pitt is already two games deep into the 2021 season, hasn’t lost and notched a win over a top-25 opponent when they topped No. 16 Oklahoma State on Sunday afternoon. The Panthers improved their winning percentage from .361 in 2019 to .688 in 2020 and look to break into national prominence in similar fashion to the men’s team. They have five games against preseason top-10 opponents lined up, but just two will be played at home.

Sept. 5 vs. Texas Christian, 1 p.m. on ACC Network Extra — the No. 8 Horned Frogs, fresh off of an Elite Eight run in last season’s tournament, will bring their stingy defense to Pittsburgh late in the non-conference schedule. TCU ranked in the top-25 nationally last year in goals against average. Sophomore striker Amanda West, who ranked fifth in the country in goals scored a season ago, and the prolific Pitt offense will face perhaps their biggest test of the year early on.

Oct. 7 vs. North Carolina, 7 p.m. on ACC Network Extra — the No. 3 Tar Heels are well balanced, they ranked in the top-10 in the country for both scoring offense and goals against average last season, and figure to contend for a national title again in 2021 after making the College Cup last year. Pitt will be facing a team it wants to emulate. UNC has won 22 national titles and 24 ACC Tournament crowns. The Panthers won’t make up for their historical disadvantage with one win, but beating the Tar Heels at home would go a long way toward closing the current competitive gap that exists between the two programs. 

Football

2021 will be a year of “ifs” for the Panthers. If senior quarterback Kenny Pickett can put together a sharp season, if the receivers can clean up their issues with drops, if the defense plays to its talent level and if head coach Pat Narduzzi can avoid the kinds of situational blunders that have defined some high-profile losses, this will be a special season. 

A four-week stretch from the third week of October through the first half of November will feature three games against the best in the conference and it all starts with the highest-profile game of Pitt’s 2021 slate.

Oct. 23 vs. Clemson, kickoff time and T.V. designation TBD — a favorable schedule means that this pre-Halloween date with the ACC’s bully could end in a program-defining win or a loss that confirms how wide the gap remains between Pitt and the sport’s elite. 

Six games — one versus an FCS team, two against non-major FBS teams and three against struggling Power-5 opponents — stand between now and the reigning ACC champions’ visit to Heinz Field. Should the stars align and Pitt carries a 6-0 record into week seven, that game will likely pit two top-25 teams against one another. The Panthers have only played one such game during Narduzzi’s tenure, a 23-20 victory on Sept. 26, 2020 over then No. 21 Louisville

A win would give the Panthers rarely-seen momentum headed into key Coastal Division contests versus preseason AP top-15 teams Miami and UNC the following weeks and respect on the national stage. A lot has to fall their way in order for the Clemson game to hold that much weight. But if Pitt can take care of business early in the season, it will earn an opportunity to strike back against a team that has used the ACC as a personal punching bag on its way to the College Football Playoffs for more than half a decade.

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