Column | Pitt Women’s Lacrosse aims to upset national champions UNC amidst sophomore season slump


Ethan Shulman | Senior Staff Photographer

Members of the Pitt women’s lacrosse team celebrate after a goal against Canisius on Tuesday, February 28.

By Alex Porter, Staff Writer

Pitt Women’s Lacrosse looks to shock the lacrosse world against current national champion No. 5 North Carolina on Friday night in Chapel Hill.

The Panthers must learn quickly from last week’s loss if they want to stand a chance against the Tar Heels. They never threatened No. 7 Boston College in their previous game — conceding the first 11 goals of the match.

For Pitt, their loss against the Eagles is a microcosm of their entire season, as they remain winless in conference play and are being outscored by an average of 9.6 goals a game. Oftentimes the Panthers struggle to stay competitive, ranking last in goals, goals against, turnovers and goal differential in ACC conference play.

Despite the team’s challenges, the Panthers have some individual bright spots. Sophomore attacker Sydney Naylor and senior attacker Camdyn O’Donnell highlight the Panthers offense, leading the team with 20 and 17 goals respectively. Defensively the team relies on sophomore midfielder Jill Fenech, who has 23 ground balls on the season, and junior defender Abby Thorne, who’s forced 17 turnovers.

The Panthers do still fare better in out-of-conference games. Most notably, the Panthers crushed local rivals Duquesne 16-10 in the season opener. Then, on March 2, No. 20 Penn State defeated the Panthers in a hard-fought match that featured a failed fourth-quarter comeback. On the other hand, the Panthers lost two winnable out-of-conference games against Liberty and Binghamption.

So far, this season marks a significant fall off from last year. In their inaugural season Pitt earned a 9-10 record, with eight wins against out-of-conference opponents. While they went a lackluster 1-7 in ACC play, the record doesn’t tell the whole story.

In 2022, the Panthers played inter-conference rivals much more competitively. They took Virginia Tech to double overtime and lost by just one goal against Duke. Pitt fought tooth and nail every game, even against ranked opponents. 

Their season’s hard-work culminated in two ACC wins against Louisville — one in the regular season and another in the ACC tournament. The numbers reflect their efforts, as the 2022 Panthers scored 1.63 more goals per game and gave up 1.4 less goals per game compared to their sophomore season counterparts.

Last year’s team starred two Second-Team All-ACC players — graduate student attacker Paige Petty and graduate student goalie Paulina DiFatta. Petty set the tone offensively, scoring 43 goals to go along with 71 draw controls. Meanwhile, DiFatta held it down in net, with the second best save percentage in the conference at 46.9% and an ACC best 198 saves.

The decline in play might disappoint fans, and reasonably so. Some might have anticipated further improvement after a year of overachieving. However, they must avoid the pitfalls of typical sports fans who obsess over winning regardless of circumstance.

Pitt lacrosse deserves patience above all. Fans must remember they are watching the second season in program history. The highs of last year were unprecedented — this year, the Panthers simply regressed to the mean.

The only solution to building a successful program remains time — time to establish a roster, system and an entire identity. The process becomes even more difficult in a league like the ACC, which is generally considered the country’s premiere collegiate women’s lacrosse league. 

All four teams who participated in the last two NCAA finals belong to the ACC. In such an elite conference, Pitt’s only option remains to stay the course and methodically build a winner. Regardless of the amount of money invested or the number of NIL deals players earn, teams can’t win overnight in the ACC.

Instead, fans should remain optimistic, as head coach Emily Boissonneault is still the perfect person to lead the program. As a player, Boissonneault contributed to four silver medals for Team Canada and played professionally for the United Women’s Lacrosse League (UWLX). Her coaching experience is especially valuable at Pitt, as she already helped establish a blossoming program by going to 4 NCAA titles and winning one as an associate head coach at James Madison. At JMU, she also served as the head of recruiting — a skill that will prove vital to assembling Pitt’s future rosters.

Boissonneault is already putting her talents to use with a number of impressive high school recruits. Last year, two Panthers achieved All ACC first-year team honors — sophomore midfielders Jill Fenech and Dylana Williams. 

With this season unfinished, both already achieved career highs. Fenech improved on her ground-balls and forced turnovers totals with 23 and 12 through 14 games, while Williams already beat her first-year total by two goals with nine so far on the season.

Even outside of the challenges of building a program, the Panthers dealt with a remarkable 14 graduated players from last year’s roster. The list included the team’s top six goal scorers and star goaltender. With mass roster turnover, transitioning doesn’t usually go seamlessly. These graduates achieved their goal — starting a foundation of grit and determination within the program. 

Now a younger core must find the strength within themselves to finish strong.

To steal a win against the elite Tarheels, the Panthers must put together a complete performance. Throughout the season, Pitt often falls victim to one period sinking the entire game. 

Both Liberty and Binghamton outscored them 5-0 in the fourth period. Louisville also outscored Pitt 5-0 in the second quarter and never relinquished their lead. 

To stand a chance against some of the best teams in the nation, Pitt cannot afford to take a second off, let alone an entire period.

The Panthers must also limit their turnovers against UNC. Pitt averages an ACC worst 15.14 turnovers a game, while UNC averages an ACC best 8.83 turnovers a game. To add on, the Tar Heels force turnovers at an elite rate, averaging 10.33 a game for second best in the conference. This significant mismatch represents a huge problem for the Panthers and one they must limit to stand any chance in Chapel Hill.

Lastly, Pitt needs to win the possession battle. North Carolina possesses an elite offense that can run anyone off the field. To best combat this, the Panthers need to win as many ground balls and draws as possible, keeping the ball away from the Tar Heels attack.

In all, the chances Pitt pull off the upset remain slim. To put the matchup in perspective, the game features a sophomore program in rebuilding mode versus the reigning national champions. Even a close-fought battle is worth celebrating

Although it may not show in the record, Pitt can still make great internal improvements through their last few games. Pitt fans must keep in mind that the program remains a work in progress.

  1. The Panthers’ time will come — just be patient.