Panthers kicking way to wins

By Jay Huerbin

Before October struck last season, the Pitt men’s soccer team struggled just to score goals, let… Before October struck last season, the Pitt men’s soccer team struggled just to score goals, let alone tally a win. That problem hasn’t materialized in 2008. Standing with five wins partway through this year, the team has already exceeded last season’s three-win total. ‘We’re a bit deeper at every position,’ said head coach Joe Luxbacher. ‘I think that’s the big thing ‘mdash; a little more experience and a little more mature.’ With another year of playing in the Big East, which is considered to be one of the toughest soccer leagues in collegiate play, the players are coming together and starting to turn around a struggling program. Pitt started the season off with a 4-1-1 record before upsetting then-No. 20 Rutgers in its first Big East game of the season. The win improved the Panthers’ record to 5-1-1 and marked the program’s best start since the 2000 team began 6-0-0. ‘We don’t consider it an upset,’ said Luxbacher of the win over Rutgers. ‘We think we’re a pretty good team when we have everybody in.’ In a defensive-minded league such as the Big East, making a play when the opportunity arises can be the difference between a winning and losing season. During the 2007 campaign, Pitt suffered four one-goal losses. This year, the team started converting its chances and taking advantage of its opponents’ mistakes. ‘You get a collective effort to get in you in a position to win,’ said Luxbacher. ‘But then you have to make a play, and if you don’t, that could decide the game.’ Part of that collective effort is controlling the play offensively. Anchoring the Panthers’ offensive unit is senior E.J. McCormick, whose goal in the 84th minute against Rutgers proved to be a game-winner. ‘We’ve definitely scored a few more goals than we did last year,’ said McCormick. ‘We have players that are capable of finishing with everybody getting an extra year, getting more experience and knowing what it takes. That’s definitely a big help.’ With the Big East containing some of the best shut-down defensive teams in the nation, turning around a program did not come easy. Finding the right structures to manage the game’s tempo was a key to improvement. ‘We have had a little different formation,’ said McCormick. ‘But other than that, its just guys working hard, busting their [butts].’ While the team has started to find its scoring touch, the defense is working just as hard to win games. With scoring sometimes starting from the defensive zone, the coaching staff is continuing to work on finding that perfect blend between offense and defense that has given Pitt early success. ‘We want to keep playing tight defense,’ said Luxbacher. ‘We don’t want to give that up at all, but we are changing up how we play to commit more people into the attack without hopefully taking anything away from defense. We want to play a little more direct.’ The Panthers, whose seven goals placed them in a three-way tie for seventh in the Big East, have seen great strides in some of the younger players. One player who understands how much the defense has improved this year is senior captain Eric Jaeger. ‘A lot of the players like [sophomores] Andy Kalas and Connor Malone have stepped in with another year of experience,’ said Jaeger. With the team getting better as each game passes, Jaeger explained that it’s not so much tactical changes that have helped Pitt, but rather how each player has emotionally attacked the game. ‘Everyone is playing a lot harder in the back,’ said Jaeger. ‘And hard work in the back will lead to chances up front, and we end up winning some games.’ Goaltending is at the heart of this Panthers team. Tied for fifth in the Big East with five shutouts this season, Pitt’s goalkeeping duo of seniors Eric Barnes and Jordan Marks has played a substantial part in keeping opponents’ scores low. Midway through the year, Barnes and Marks have combined to keep Pitt’s goals allowed per game at 0.60 ‘mdash; significant progress from last season’s final tally of 2.11. ‘[The] goaltending has been solid,’ said Luxbacher. ‘[Jordan and Barnes] are first string goalkeepers.’ With seven games left in the regular season, the Panthers have made noticeable steps in the right direction. The team has more confidence and experience and is matching the intensity of other Big East teams.