Team searching for answers on eve of ACC opener


By Kevin Wheeler / Staff Writer

The word spreading around the Pitt women’s soccer locker room is effort. For some unknown reason, playing a full 90 minutes is hard for the team.

The Panthers (4-4) dropped their last non-conference game of this season last Friday night to the Virginia Commonwealth University Rams 1-0. After the game, head coach Greg Miller wasn’t pleased with his team’s energy and couldn’t find a reason why it took his team 65 minutes to start playing hard. This Friday, Pitt will finally begin its highly anticipated ACC season in a matchup against the Duke Blue Devils (4-4) at home at Ambrose Urbanic Field at 7:00 p.m.

One week after the VCU loss, Miller is still searching for answers.

“[My players] have been going since the end of June when they reported for summer school, and they’ve been training and lifting and playing together since the preseason,” Miller said. “That’s a grind, so they looked mentally and physically tired. So I think that was part of it.”

Miller said that he’s not sure what else could be contributing to the Panthers’ fatigue other than schoolwork, which is always a factor in a student athlete’s life. This lack of energy, however, comes at the most inopportune time for Pitt.

“Ideally, at this point, you’d like to have a little momentum going into conference play, and we seem to have a little bit of the opposite,” Miller said. 

Senior captain Jackie Poucel has a slightly different diagnosis than her coach, but she, too, still cannot figure out the reason for the Panthers’ lackadaisical play as of late.

“I think people were working but not with the sense of urgency we needed,” Poucel said. “I think it’s been hard for some of us to gain confidence in play and feel free when we’re on the field. We haven’t been having fun the way we should be. To why that is, I don’t have much of an answer.”

To expedite the process of getting his players’ minds in the right place, Miller has been conducting one-on-one interviews with each player this week.

“I’m trying to reach out to each of them individually to see if we can scratch their brains and get them refocused on what they need to do, so we’re trying to do a little bit more to get the group honed in on what our task is,” Miller said. “I posed two questions to them: ‘am I doing enough?’ and ‘am I being a good teammate?’ So, again, just trying to get them to take more personal responsibility for their own game and what they’re contributing.”

A common misconception is that bench players don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. That’s not what makes a team, however. Miller knows that, and he’s using a no-player-left-behind mindset while he goes through his individual meetings.

“It’s about the full spectrum. That includes starters to people that play coming off the bench and people that don’t get to play at all, because everybody factors into our success,” Miller said. “If the bottom part of the roster is complacent, then they’re not pushing the kids in front of them. If the kids coming off the bench aren’t working that much harder to push the starters, then they’re not getting any better, so the environment suffers.”

As far as practice this week, Pitt has the benefit of preparing for only one weekend game, which is perhaps shaping up to be their toughest test thus far. Tactically, the Panthers are working toward developing that killer instinct they strive for.  

“We’ve done a lot of defensive drills and competitive ones that create a fun, but combative, environment,” Poucel, a defender, said. “We’re really working on being more dangerous in front of the net and also being more compact and organized on our back line.”

Poucel’s co-captain and forward/midfielder Siobhan McDonough leads her team by example through these drills and has bought in to the new practice routine for this week.

“Everything we did this week had a competitive base,” McDonough said. “If your team didn’t win, then you had a ‘fun’ punishment so that we can reinforce the fact that, as a team, we need to be constantly working.”

Miller has also made roster moves to try to get his players used to what the ACC season will bring, specifically with Duke.

“Naturally, with going into conference play, things are going to be faster,” Miller said. “We’ve added on some male practice players to help with the speed of things and inserted them in certain activities and certain environments to help simulate some things that we’ll face. So, we did some different things to help us prepare.”

The Blue Devils have played a slew of difficult opponents in their non-conference schedule this season, including LSU, Penn State, Arkansas, Ohio State and Stanford.  

“[Duke] has a very dynamic front five players that really can attack you in a lot of ways,” Miller said. “They can break you down on the dribble, they can score from distance and they can break you down with a combinational play through crossing. So, for us to stop that, we just have to be really organized and cover one another pretty well and communicate.”

Duke starts up to four or five freshmen at times, which could play into Pitt’s favor Friday night. 

Pitt is thirsty for an ACC victory after slumping through an abysmal winless ACC record last season.

It will be a long journey through the gauntlet of ACC games that stretch into November for Pitt, which will be Poucel’s last, and she is looking forward to the opportunity.

“With better competition comes a heightened sense of urgency and a more competitive environment that pushes a lot of people to be better, and, hopefully, that is what will happen,” she said.

For Miller, conference play is a new challenge and a new opportunity to see how his young team responds under the pressure of competition. 

“It’s a new season,” Miller said. “Everybody is 0-0 at this point and we should be excited by that.”


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