It was a newsworthy if not necessarily eventful season out on the pitch for Pittsburgh. The Panthers’ move to the ACC as of the 2014 season (at the moment) was confirmed, a necessity for a program looking to stay somewhat relevant in football. As for the move’s effect on soccer at Pitt…well, let’s just say some might be fearing for the well being of the Panthers given the gulf in talent between Pittsburgh and their future conference rivals. The Panthers did little to assuage any fears in 2011, another lost season for one of the nation’s most unsuccessful programs in a big conference.
For a club that had seemingly been taking baby steps out of the wilderness the past few seasons, it was a depressing return to reality. The Panthers had put together their best season in ages in 2009, going 8-5-5 and finishing in the top seventy in the RPI with wins over Ohio State and UConn to go along with draws against West Virginia, Marquette, Villanova, and Notre Dame. But Pitt missed out on the postseason, leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of Panther fans despite seeing the program’s first winning season ever. 2010 had been a mixed bag, with Pittsburgh making it back to the postseason in unbelievable fashion by winning their last three Big East matches and getting results elsewhere to go their way.
But the Panthers still managed to lose eleven matches and dropped eighty spots in the final RPI. The murky end result of 2010 made 2011 a critical season for the program and head coach Sue-Moy Chin, who was under severe pressure for positive results. It was bad news from the off though, the club somehow drawing with an Eastern Michigan side that would finish in the Bottom 100 of the RPI. It got even worse from there, with a 2-0 loss to Ohio before being humiliated by James Madison, 6-0. A win against Delaware was a welcome result, but it would also be the club’s last win for a good month and a half. There were further setbacks through non-conference play, including a brutal 3-0 loss to Oakland in the Panthers’ last match before Big East play.
There were to be no great escapes this season. Despite draws in two of their first three, it would take until the team’s eighth match of the league season to break through, somehow destroying St. John’s (NY), 6-1, after looking so feeble for much of the rest of the season. That fight wouldn’t carry over to the team’s final three league matches though, all shutout defeats. It left Pittsburgh in fifteenth place overall in the Big East and Chin out of a job come the end of the season.
Not that you’d know it if you just went by the Panthers’ website, where an announcement as to Chin’s departure was never bothered with. It wasn’t exactly a message of professionalism that resonated from Pitt as they looked to begin a new era before the move to the ACC. The Panthers tabbed long-time Ohio State associate head coach Greg Miller for the open job in January. Given the program’s historical underachievement and an apparent dearth of talent at the moment, you’d have to say he faces a Herculean task for his first job as a head coach.
The clock is ticking on the Panthers, and now Miller, to improve their fortunes, or at least their competitiveness, before the massive shift to the ACC in either 2013 or 2014, depending on how certain lawsuits get settled. Miller not only has to overcome the club’s losing mentality that’s been fostered for years and years but also a general vacuum of talent that saw the Panthers give up a league worst twenty-six goals in eleven league games last year, or nearly two and a half a game. Pitt’s offense wasn’t exactly sterling either, scoring just nine in the league and fourteen overall.
Add in the loss of the team’s best player in Katelyn Ruhe, along with at least three other starters, and you’d have to say that Miller is in tough in his first year with the club, especially with what looks like an unofficially unspectacular recruiting class coming in to replenish the ranks this year. If the new boss can take solace in anything though, it’s that the bottom half of the Big East isn’t exactly Murderer’s Row, meaning a leap out of the basement may not be as far fetched as some might believe.
Miller’s unlikely to be comforted too much by the fact that he almost has to start from scratch between the pipes this year after the graduation of senior Kristina Rioux. Rioux herself came into the 2011 season a completely untested keeper though, as the Canadian had not played a single minute in three seasons before her senior year. She would end up starting all but a few games her senior season and often found herself busy, making ten or more saves on four separate occasions. The incumbent and slight favorite for the job is sophomore Nicole D’Agostino, who redshirted in 2010 before seeing action in five games last season, playing the whole match against James Madison and Georgetown in 6-0 defeats each, while also plain half of three more games. She’ll be challenged by true freshmen Cassie Betancourt and Makenzie Shearson, but the overall lack of experience amongst the group is a concern.
Whoever ends up in goal will be desperately hoping that the defense in front of them holds up better than last year’s woeful effort. The de facto leader would appear to be junior Caroline Keefer, who has started every match of her Pitt career thus far and turned a few heads as a rookie in 2010, landing on the All-Big East Rookie Team. Keefer will have to raise her game a level though to try and help stop the tide of goals that crushed the club last season. Also starting every match last season was sophomore Alyssa Meier, who recovered from going down with a season ending injury in game one of the 2010 season to being a constant on the backline last year.
Senior Abby Baldys has been another familiar face on the backline the past few years and started fourteen games last season despite missing the opening few weeks of the season. Baldys can also contribute in the attack, as seen in 2010’s three assist effort, though she was held pointless last year. Filling the other spot will likely be one of the newcomers or three other returnees with starting experience. Morgan Sharick started eighteen games as a freshman in 2010 but missed most of the second half of last season and is a good bet for the spot if healthy. Sophomores Jackie Poucel and Nicole Stiles combined for twelve starts as well last year and could see major minutes also. The returning experience helps, but this group needs to show improvement across the board.
Miller will probably have a few headaches in arranging this unit after the loss of three starters, including, arguably, the team’s best player in Katelyn Ruhe. Ruhe leaves as a four-year starter who also started every match possible in her Pittsburgh career. She made a big impact as a rookie with five goals in 2008 and gradually evolved into a big time playmaker, chipping in with nine assists in 2010. Last season was more modest, with just four assists, though that still extended her program record total of assists. The Frederick native leaves with a claim as one of the best Panthers of all-time and will be difficult to replace.
Also departing is Katheryn Kunugi, who saw time as a defender and a midfielder throughout her career and who was another who started every match last season. The third starter departing is a more unexpected blow, as Ali Matisse leaves after a freshman season with twelve starts, a goal, and an assist.
With those losses, Miller will be left scrambling to reassemble his midfield for 2012. Junior Katelyn Lippert is the only midfield returnee with double digit starts last year, and she could’ve started all of Pitt’s games had she not missed most of the Big East season. Senior Lyndsay Pierson started the opener but played no further part last year and will be desperately hoping for some luck after missing most of 2010 as well.
Junior Danielle Benner and sophomores Madison Gritsch and Lauren Yobbi, highly touted as a rookie a year ago, will also be in the mix for potential starting minutes. It’s conceivable that the newcomers and Poucel could also play a major role in a unit starving for quality and production. A lack of said production returning and the large loss of experience makes this unit a real worry heading into 2012.
The Panthers’ bite in front of goal will probably run through senior Ashley Cuba, who already is the club’s leading goalscorer after breaking the record in early October last year. While that also probably says a little about the Panthers’ futility as a program, Cuba’s still no slouch in front of goal. After thirteen combined goals in two years, Cuba enjoyed her best season as a collegian last year, hitting the back of the net eight times and only needing forty-seven shots to do so. Cuba netted a brace in the club’s 2-2 draw with Colorado College early before a stunning hat trick against St. John’s (NY) in an even more stunning 6-1 rout. Cuba’s an outside contender for ten goals as a senior, which would suit Miller’s rebuilding project just fine.
Likely flanking her is junior Dana DelleFemine, who also scored twice in that beating of St. John’s (NY) but didn’t score another goal all season. Senior Hayley Neal and sophomore Kari Cunard both got spot starts in stretches last season, but neither scored a goal in 2011 and may again be reduced to mostly substitute duty. The incoming class looks light on forwards, so the likes of Lippert and Pierson might also be called upon. Cuba’s a solid striker for Miller to rely on this year, but the lack of depth could limit her effectiveness as she faces swarms of opposing defenders.
I’m not exactly stepping out on a limb here, but it looks like Miller’s going to have his hands full in 2012 trying to breathe some life into one of DI’s biggest messes. A club in a conference as big as the Big East shouldn’t be finishing in the two hundreds in the RPI and being beaten by the likes of Ohio and Oakland. Miller gets to work with a talented striker in Cuba, but it’s questionable as to the service she’ll get without Ruhe in tow this year. The defense and goalkeeping situation is a little frightful, and Miller will be hoping some of the new blood can freshen things up. On the whole though, the Panthers have a long way to climb to get to respectability, and their participation in the postseason this year looks unlikely unless Miller can work some miracles.