Panthers prepare for challenge of rival Notre Dame


By Kevin Wheeler / Staff Writer

After a three-game road stint that resulted in a 2-1 record with wins over Syracuse and NC State, the Pitt women’s soccer team returns home on Thursday playing its best soccer of the season.

The Panthers will face off against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (7-4-1, 2-2-0) at 7 p.m. on Thursday at Ambrose Urbanic Field inside the Petersen Sports Complex.

It will be Pitt’s first home game since Sept. 19, when the Panthers fell to a strong Duke Blue Devils team in a 3-0 beatdown.

But the 20 days since the Duke game have seen a change in the Panthers’ performance. This team is not the same one that appeared disorganized and slow against Duke. The Panthers (6-6-0, 2-2-0) have more confidence than ever after earning two straight conference wins for the first time since 2012. They have also climbed the ladder in the ACC standings and are now ranked seventh in the conference.

Head coach Greg Miller has been gauging his team’s focus throughout the last three weeks, and they have done a lot to prove themselves to him as of late.

“We can put together an entire game, we can create very good scoring chances, we can score goals, we can be physical with teams and we can go after them in a variety of ways that we haven’t been able to do in the past,” Miller said. “I think that’s a wonderful thing for a young team. To be able to play with some confidence at this point in the year, in this conference, just shows that we can go toe-to-toe with anybody on any given day.”

The Panthers’ morale is high right now, perhaps the highest it has been in a few years, and it has instilled a positive attitude among the players. 

“I think [the players’] mindset going into Notre Dame is, ‘Hey, why not us on this particular day?’” Miller said. “For a coaching staff to have a team that feels that way is wonderful, because it allows us to sit back and let them focus together on one another and what the game plan is, and just see how they do.”

The Fighting Irish bring a dynamic team to Pittsburgh, which could put the Panthers’ confidence to the test.

Sophomore co-captain Siobhan McDonough believes that her team’s morale is better than it has ever been. Still, she is weary of wandering off the path that her team has been on lately.

“Our confidence is still new,” McDonough said. “Notre Dame is a very good team, and I don’t want us to lose our confidence and style of play against this type of opponent. The only thing that could drag us down is the fear or nerves some people might face with playing such a talented team.”

Notre Dame is coming off of a 2-1 loss at the hands of the Virginia Cavaliers on Sunday, after giving up a goal with 20 seconds remaining in the game. Surely, they will be coming into Ambrose Urbanic Field looking to bounce back, but what is it that makes the Fighting Irish appear so tough?

“They can come at you in a variety of different ways,” Miller said. “They can score goals from distance, they can score goals on set pieces and they have a number of very strong attacking players, so they can really break you down individually. They’re going to come at you in waves. If you shut down one or two players, then others step up, so you have to make sure you’re prepared for all situations.”

Miller singled out sophomore midfielder Morgan Andrews, junior midfielder and defenseman Cari Roccaro and senior forward Lauren Bohaboy as three key members of Notre Dame’s dangerous offensive attack. 

The Achilles’ heel for the Irish, however — at least in coach Miller’s eyes — is that they may be a little weaker defensively in the midfield than most would expect, but that was the only weakness that Miller could cite when speaking of Notre Dame.

It may help Pitt to have a bit of a personal edge about them for this contest. Senior co-captain Jackie Poucel arguably brings that competitive flare to the field every game, but she holds a big stake in this game in particular.

“I’m really looking forward to [Notre Dame], especially because last year, when we met at Notre Dame, I played only one half before being taken to the hospital,” Poucel said, referencing a sprained elbow she suffered in the 2013 match between the two squads. 

One of Pitt’s biggest issues this season has been its inability to keep opposing teams off the scoreboard early on in games. They have been able to accomplish that as of late, but the threat of that happening again looms with Notre Dame. So, naturally, Miller wants to make sure the Panthers don’t give up a goal early, causing them to lose their confidence at the same time.

“We need to be able to possess the ball on them and create scoring chances. That will provide some additional confidence for us,” Miller said. “We certainly feel good about what we’ve accomplished, but [the players] are hungry for more, and that’s exactly where we want them to be at this point.”

A win Thursday would be Pitt’s third consecutive ACC win, a feat that no Panther women’s soccer team has accomplished before. It would also thrust the Panthers into the top five of the ACC standings, as the two teams above them — Notre Dame and Virginia Tech — both have 2-2-0 records in conference play.

Pitt has to win five of their final six games to reach their goal of 11 wins on the year, and they will hope to inch closer to that goal on Thursday evening.

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