Pitt women’s soccer ‘next-player-up’ mentality sets itself up for first National Tournament appearance


Hannah Wilson | Senior Staff Photographer

Pitt sophomore midfielder Bri Hilsenteger (14) prepares to bump the ball during a game against Miami at Ambrose Urbanic Field in September.

By Alexander Ganias, Staff Writer

The Pitt women’s soccer team sat in their film room, awaiting to hear their fate in the NCAA Women’s soccer tournament. The Panthers had already set numerous program records, like most wins in a season, with 12, and most ACC wins in a season, with five. They all wore shirts that read “Leaving a Legacy,” and soon after, the NCAA made the announcement.

Pitt earned their first-ever national tournament berth

The Panthers erupted in cheers as they learned their season was not yet over. Head coach Randy Waldrum had a few words for the team and the guests in the film room.

“We appreciate all of you for this moment,” Waldrum said to his team. “The administration and the coaches know that it takes a whole lot of people to make something like this work.”

Pitt’s historic season started with an early-season tournament win in Missoula, Montana. Shutout wins against Gonzaga and host Montana clinched the Rumble in the Rockies, and senior forward Amanda West’s two goals earned her ACC offensive player of the week honors.

The Panthers laid the hammer down in their next three games. They beat UMass 6-1, Cleveland State 5-0 on the road and Kent State 7-0. West had six goals throughout those first five games, and the defense in front of senior goalkeeper Caitlyn Lazzarini only allowed one goal through the first six.

Despite this, Pitt was down two of their better players with injuries. Junior forward Chantelle Parker and junior midfielder Chloe Minas missed the entire season. To make things worse, West hit the turf with a torn ACL in the game against Cincinnati. Pitt won that game against the Bearcats, but its season looked a lot more complicated with its program-leading scorer indefinitely sidelined.

Waldrum acknowledged this in his speech after the selection.

“You think about it, we lost three really key players to our team,” he said. “That would shred most teams in our situation, but you guys just didn’t skip a beat. Next-player-up.”

Thanks to that “next-player-up” mentality, the Panthers finished the season strong. They went 5-3-2 in conference play, including a win on the road against Notre Dame, who earned one of the four No. 1 seeds in the national tournament. A tie against Clemson in the regular season finale clinched another first for the Panthers — their first-ever ACC tournament berth.

The Fighting Irish exacted some revenge against Pitt in the conference tournament, winning 5-4 in the penalty shootout. But even with that loss, athletic director Heather Lyke had no doubts about this team from the beginning.

“I didn’t see anyone on that [schedule] that I was worried about,” she said with a laugh. “You guys can play with the best of them, and I really believe that.”

The Panthers earned the No. 4 seed in the Tallahassee Regional and will host MAC Champion Buffalo. The Bulls are coming off their second conference championship, which capped off a near-perfect 11-0-1 record on their home turf and 7-0-4 record in the conference. The Bulls’ only loss the entire season came against Rutgers, the No. 3 team in the nation at the time.

Buffalo scored a respectable 36 goals, but it made it seem like a lot more because it only allowed eight goals all year. Sophomore forwards Jasmine Guerber and Arianna Zumpano led the team with eight goals apiece, and senior midfielder Payton Robinson collected eight assists.

But the Panthers have a solid offense too — notching 44 goals on 40 assists through 18 regular season games and one postseason game. Senior forward Leah Pais led the team with seven goals and five assists, while sophomore forward Sarah Schupansky and senior midfielder Landy Mertz tacked on six goals each.

Each squad has a pair of All-conference players as well. Mertz earned a spot on the All-ACC third team, while first-year defender Katie Zaleski did the same for the All-ACC Freshman team. For Buffalo, first-year defender Ellie Simmons and fifth-year goalkeeper Emily Kelly made the All-MAC first team. In addition, head coach Shawn Burke won MAC coach of the year.

Along with making their first-ever tournament, Pitt has the opportunity to host the first two rounds because of their seed. If they win, they will face either No. 5 seed Georgetown or No. 12 seed Hofstra in Pittsburgh.

The journey starts on Saturday, Nov. 12. No. 4 Pitt will host No. 13 Buffalo in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at 7 p.m. on ACC Network Extra.