Welcome Back: Despite their youth, Panthers determined to win

Welcome Back: Despite their youth, Panthers determined to win

By Kevin Wheeler / Staff Writer

Members of the Pitt women’s soccer team will wear the roman numeral “XI” on their jerseys this season, signifying the mantra that head coach Greg Miller and the rest of the coaching staff instilled in the team last November: “Year of 11.”

This season is the “Year of 11” — a unifying phrase that represents the 11 players on the field, the target of winning 11 games and, most importantly, the team’s overall goal to make it to the postseason, which takes place in November, the 11th month of the year.

After years of losing, the program — which began in 1996 and has had only one winning campaign since then — hopes an influx of new players will be a driving force in 2014. 

Returning players such as Jackie Poucel, a senior are fed up with losing. Poucel is the team’s only remaining player from her 2011 freshman class after head coach Sue Moy-Chin was relieved of her duties following that season. She has endured the program’s struggles the longest out of anyone on the team.

“You don’t get to be in the position that I am, as a DI ACC athlete, by being okay with mediocrity. I hate losing and I know everyone on my team, including the incoming freshmen, do as well,” Poucel said. 

Last year’s roster saw a slew of inexperienced players, which led to difficulties with scoring on offense and being competitive in ACC play. These issues were the catalyst for Pitt’s inability to record a victory in its conference schedule and, ultimately, for its final overall season record of 4-14.

Head coach Greg Miller said the difficulties were expected.

“Trying to put together a competitive group was a little challenging, so we knew we were going to have struggles along the way,” Miller said. 

This season could bring more of the same challenges with 13 incoming freshmen, three redshirt freshmen and eight sophomores on the roster. The team has just five upperclassmen and lost five  of last year’s starters. 

“All those freshmen were able to endure their first ACC season. We hope that [their experience] will pay off heading into this season,” Miller said. “It’s not going to get any easier. Everyone is going to get a little bit better. But we do have [13] freshmen coming in, and we’re excited about blending this group with what we have coming back and being a tougher team to play against.”

The team also has three players who redshirted as freshmen last year.

Among Pitt’s five returning starters are the team’s new captains, Poucel and sophomore forward and midfielder Siobhan McDonough. 

McDonough dismissed her age as a factor in her ability to lead as a team captain.

“Age is just a number. Maturity and actions play a much greater role in a person’s leadership. Regardless of my age and experience, I think my teammates will respond positively to my leadership and attitude,” McDonough said. 

Of Pitt’s many struggles last season, the offense seemed to be the most prevalent.  

The Panthers managed to score only six total goals in their 13 ACC games last season, including a 10-game stretch in which Pitt was able to tally just one total goal.

“We didn’t have the athletes that some of the other teams had and, just from a talent perspective, we didn’t have enough of that,” Miller said. “So we spent a lot of time defending. In order to score goals and generate some offense, we need to do a better job of keeping the ball.”

The team will depend on its new players to change that.

“We are hoping now, with a new influx of offensive-minded players in this freshman class coming in, that we can score a lot more goals and put more pressure on the opponent,” Miller said.

McDonough added that, in addition to having improved players, the team’s chemistry needs to be better. 

“Generating a strong offense relies heavily on communication, understanding, athleticism and creativity,” she said. “Hopefully with better connection throughout all lines of the field, increased physical speed and speed of transition, along with a better understanding of how to break down a back-line, our offense should become much more efficient.”

Turning this team around in 2014 will be no easy task for the Panthers, who are looking to establish a standard of winning within the program. Their schedule includes eight teams that made the NCAA Tournament last year, as well as six teams that finished 2013 ranked in the top 25.

Because his team is very young, Miller made sure to schedule many home games. There are 11 home games scheduled for this season.

“It was important to get as many home games as possible so we weren’t traveling as much and that there wasn’t as much stress on the younger players,” he said. “If we can make it as easy of a transition as possible for them, then I think that will only help us.”

Scheduling can only make up for so much, though. It is up to the Panthers to perform at a high level on the field and turn the program around. 

“We are more than fired up. We are absolutely burning to get into conference play to prove everyone wrong,” Poucel said. “We are at the bottom, yes, but we won’t be for long. We have nothing to lose.”