Second half brace from Leah Pais propels Panthers past Cincinnati


Hannah Wilson | Senior Staff Photographer

Graduate defender Hailey Davidson (11) kicks the ball at the Pitt women’s soccer game against UMass on Aug. 25 at Ambrose Urbanic Field.

By Alexander Ganias, Staff Writer

Pitt women’s soccer defeated Cincinnati 2-0 at Ambrose Urbanic Field on Sunday thanks to a brace by senior forward Leah Pais. Despite their victory, the Panthers lost key senior forward Amanda West with an apparent knee injury.

Both squads came into this match without a loss to their names. Pitt’s (6-0, 0-0 ACC) last victory came against Kent State, winning 7-0 at home, while Cincinnati (3-1-2, 0-0 AAC) hosted Stony Brook and won 5-1.

Cincinnati stifled the recently high-scoring Pitt offense in the first half. Despite outshooting the Bearcats 7-4, Pitt couldn’t find the back of the net. Sophomore forward Sarah Schupansky tried to lead West with a cross in the third minute, but the pass was too long and went out of bounds.

Assistant coach Ben Waldrum commented on the lack of scoring in the first half.

“You have to give [Cincinnati] credit, they presented a different challenge,” he said. “But we have to be way more efficient in the final third going into conference play.”

The Cincinnati pressure came to a head in the 12th minute. When Cincinnati senior defender Ashley Barron challenged West in the corner, the Panther’s leading scorer landed awkwardly and stayed on the turf until trainers helped her up. Waldrum said the timetable for West is unclear, but the team is obviously keeping an eye on it.

“It looks like something to do with her knee,” he said. “She went in for an MRI right after the injury, so we don’t have all the details. I don’t want to speculate.”

Pais subbed in for the injured West and the game resumed. 

The Panthers kept pressuring the Cincinnati defense throughout the first half, and their closest chance came in the 24th minute. Senior midfielder Landy Mertz found the ball just outside the six-yard box and lightly tapped it past Cincinnati junior goalkeeper Anna Rexford. But Barron swung in from the outside and headed the ball away, keeping the game scoreless.

Pais complimented the defense’s ability to keep Pitt in games when the offense isn’t producing.

“Our defense is strong,” she said. “If up top we can’t convert, we know they’re going to be there to support us.”

Pitt started the second half with immediate pressure. Sophomore forward and Oklahoma State transfer Samiah Phiri drove toward the center of the field and just missed her shot to the right one minute into the half. Phiri got another chance to score in the 61st minute, and this time she didn’t waste it. She found Pais on the outside of the six-yard box, forcing Rexford out of position while she tucked the ball behind the far post giving the Panthers a 1-0 advantage.

Waldrum talked about the positive impact Phiri had on the team when she was subbed in for the second half.

“She brings a different element,” he said. “She has some physicality and she’s very creative in and around the box. I thought she changed the game when she came in.”

Pais scored her second goal just three minutes later, this time as a result of a steal by Schupansky near midfield. She dribbled around the Cincinnati defense, found sophomore midfielder Keera Melenhorst who then set up Pais to take advantage of an empty net. She did, and the Panthers took a 2-0 lead that would stand until the final whistle. 

While Pais was satisfied with her brace, she understood the importance of the next-man-up mentality.

“I think we have the deepest team Pitt has had since I’ve been here,” she said. “I know I didn’t start, but they asked me to fill that role, to find the back of the net, and I did.”

Waldrum agreed, and elaborated on how that separates this year’s team from teams of the past.

“We felt that we were going to have depth up top,” he said. “I think that’s the biggest difference between this season and last season is the amount of talent on our front lines.”

Both teams traded chances in the last 25 minutes, but nothing crossed the goal line. Even as Rexford came across midfield to help her squad with a last-minute free kick, it went for naught. The final whistle sounded, and Pitt handed Cincinnati its first loss. Pais acknowledged the Panthers’ success, but explained that they can’t get too ahead of themselves.

“We’re trying to build confidence for each player,” she said. “The games are going to get harder, so we have to build that confidence for the next one.”

Pitt will travel to Richmond, Virginia, for their next match against VCU on Thursday at 7 p.m.