Six Things To Watch as college season kicks into gear

As we reach the end of August, that means that the scholastic soccer season is kicking into gear, and Pittsburgh Soccer Report plans keep close tabs of both the high school and college soccer seasons.

This week, the college season gets underway with the women’s teams (you may have seen some results already), and at the end of this week, the men will kick off as well.

As part of our coverage, I am also looking forward to sharing a new edition of the #PghSoccer Film series that includes interviews with some of the local coaches — and I’ll be entering the second season of the Scholastic Soccer Show podcast on the Beautiful Game Network with Mike Sparks.

In the meantime, here are some of the things that we can look forward to seeing this coming college season in our region.

 

1. CAN PITT’s MEN’s PROGRAM TURN THE CORNER?

Watching Pitt’s men’s team play in the Spring season, they showed some promise as there was a sense that this is really Jay Vidovich‘s team now, and he’s starting to add some dynamic players to the mix.

Pitt men's soccer vs. Detroit, Ambrose Urbanic Field, August 26, 2016
Jay Vidovich has brought players in who he feels are up to the challenge of turning Pitt’s men’s program around. Photographer: Pete Madia/Pitt Athletics

Whether or not this will equate to Pitt earning its first-ever win in ACC competition (in four years) — and help elevate their status to becoming a competitive outfit, remains to be seen.

“I’m pretty excited to be around this group of players, they’re ready to change the place” said Vidovich, who won a National Championship in his successful tenure at Wake Forest. “They know what they’re coming into, and they want to change it.  Our vision, our project we have here is not for everybody. It’s going to take some special people, and you’re going to have to embrace it. Some people are up for the challenge, and some would rather play for a more established program. But these guys were up for the challenge.”

Pitt’s new-look line-up seems to have added more quality, primarily in the midfield with the additions of Marcony PimentelColin BrezniakChad Stout and Wake Forest transfer Josh Coan at forward. When Vidovich hit the recruiting trail, he clearly was looking for more help in the attack.

Then over the summer Vidovich added a few Central Florida high school powerhouse Montverde Academy products Edward Kizza and Fiorre Mane, who he believes will help Pitt right away.

The challenge remains daunting, as the ACC is clearly the top men’s soccer conference in the land, last year alone boasting nine of its 12 teams making the NCAA National Tournament, and two making it to the College Cup (Final Four).

“We’re in a race right now, and we have a very fast VW Bug, and there are a lot of formula one’s in the same race,” Vidovich added. “We’re making tremendous progress, but we were brought in here to build a nationally competitive program, and we’re going to have a fun time with this.”

Pitt opens the 2017 season with a trip to Columbus, Ohio, to take on the Buckeyes Friday, Aug. 25, followed by James Madison, Sunday, Aug. 27. The Panthers home opener is set for Friday, Sept. 1, when Longwood comes to Pittsburgh.

2. LOCAL PIPELINE KEEPS DUQUESNE WOMEN IN A-10 CONTENTION 

Last season, despite a strong campaign, a third place finish in the Atlantic 10 regular seasion and an 11-6-3 overall record, the Dukes ended the season on a tough note, losing a disappointing first-round playoff game to George Washington 2-1 in overtime.

Even with a 1-0 loss to Pitt in their opener, the Dukes are poised to have another strong season, as they’re picked to finish fifth by the A-10 coaches. They’ll return a few key players from teams that have had success in recent years, including an A-10 title and trip to the NCAA tournament in 2015.

The Dukes will be lead by senior midfielder Linnea Faccenda and junior defender Casey Aunkst (Penn Trafford), who were named to the Preseason All-Conference Team — and goalkeeper Kyra Murphy (Canon-Mac) returns.

Head coach Al Alvine‘s roster is filled with lots of local players, including nine former Beadling players alone.

“If we play the way we played (against Pitt), we’re going to score our share of goals, and we’ll be ready for the Atlantic 10 competition,” Alvine said after the 1-0 opening loss to Pitt.

In addition, the Dukes return its top four goal scorers from 2016 including Katie O’Connor (6), Abby Losco (Hopewell), Malea Fabean (Greensburg Central Catholic) and Faccenda.

Here’s what Pitt’s Greg Miller had to say about Duquesne:

“They’re always a well-coached team. They play hard and are disciplined. They know what their game plan is, and they try to execute it. And they’re always dangerous on set pieces, and that’s a game changer for them. In the Atlantic 10, they can do a lot of good things. That’s a team that’s only going to get better.”

3.) WILL ROBERT MORRIS’ TEAMS RETURN TO NEC CONTENTION THIS YEAR? 

Last year was not a fun season for RMU’s soccer teams, as both came up short in their bids to post winning seasons.

Bill Denniston, who is in his 21st year coaching the men’s program, saw his team finish the 2017 season with a 4-11-2 mark. The Colonials will return 2016 All-NEC Second Team selection Keane McIvor, who paced the team in assists (5) and points last season. McIvor is one of five players among last season’s top six scorers returning, along with fellow seniors Rafael BruzualJake Cooper, and Bayley Winkel, and junior Zac Sherman. Senior goalkeeper Winter Fondi (Quaker Valley) also enters his final season with the Colonials after posting a trio of shutouts in 16 starts last season.

RMU men begin the 2017 campaign on Friday, Aug. 25 at Cleveland State. The Colonials open the home slate on Sunday, Aug. 27 at 3:00 p.m. against St. Bonaventure.

The women’s team is already off to a tough start, losing a pair of matches by 2-0 scores over the weekend at Ohio University and at home to Milwaukee.

but under the direction of coaching legend John Kowalski and with many local players on the roster, including Jane Schleicher, a former Montour High School standout who was the team’s leading goal scorer last season, the Colonials are hoping to once again contend for NEC playoff spot.

4.) CAN MIX OF YOUTH & EXPERIENCE LEAD TO RESURGENCE FOR PITT WOMEN? 

Pitt women’s coach Greg Miller had to answer a number of tough questions about his program in the preseason media day that centered around the team’s struggles last year, after a 2015 season when the fifth year coach thought he helped turn the corner.

Aideen O PITT
Former Riverhounds Academy/Canon-Mac standout Aideen O’Donoghue made her Pitt debut last weekend

In the always tough ACC, it didn’t help matters that Pitt’s roster was inundated with injuries in 2016.

In the off season, Miller also made few changes that he believes will help steer things in a better direction, primarily adding a few new coaches with Dr. Ted Flogaites as an assistant coach, while also promoting Anthony James to an assistant coaching position.

“It was a culmination of a lot of things last year, but we’re feeling good about what we have for this year. Having (forward) Taylor Pryce back, will help our attack, and we have a lot of quality freshman that will help provide a roster that is mixed with youth and experience.”

Pitt will lean heavily on its Canadian combo of redshirt junior Pryce, who was injured after two games last season but scored ten goals in her first two seasons, at the top of the attack, and Emma Pozzulo, at central back.

While Pozzulo only started one game in 2016, she has lots of experience, and showed on Sunday vs Duquesne why Miller has chosen her as one of the team captains, as she provided a strong presence in the middle of the back four, leading the Panthers to consecutive shutout wins over the weekend.

“We have four new players on the back line, and red shirt freshman goalkeeper in Katelyn McEachern, so this was huge for them,” Miller said. “You always credit the team when you get a shutout, but for those five kids in the back, it’s wonderful. Look up at the scoreboard and see zeros all weekend is wonderful.”

Miller signed two local players to the incoming freshmen class, Alexis Bengel and Aideen O’Donoghue. Bengel will miss the season due to an ACL injury, but O’Donoghue has started at left back through the preseason, and the first two games, contributing to Pitt’s two clean sheet wins.

Another player to watch is the hero in Sunday’s win over Duquesne was another freshman has also made an immediate impact, Vildan Kardelser, who played for the German National Team at the U15, U16, U17 and 19 levels, serving as the captain for her U17 team

5.) DUQUESNE MEN STRIVING FOR MORE  

Chase Brooks‘ team last season had an impressive run of play, including a seven game shutout streak, but ultimately the Dukes fell short of making noise when it mattered most, in the Atlantic 10 playoffs.

Brooks is bringing back a number of experienced players to the line-up, plus when I caught up with him for this interview that aired on Beautiful Game Network Scholastic Soccer Show podcast in the Spring, he was very excited about some of the incoming additions from a class that is ranked in the top 20 by TopDrawerSoccer.

Among the new players includes local standout Brenden Akut, who excelled for Arsenal FC of PA and at Plum High School in 2016.  

landry“Brenden is a local player from Arsenal FC that loves to attack and get to goal. We are looking forward to him bringing his confidence and work rate to Rooney Field,” Brooks said.

“Character and team-orientated are the words we use to describe this group of future Dukes,” said Brooks, when talking about his complete incoming class. “We are a family here at Duquesne. Everything we do is program first, and individual second. These guys embody these beliefs and we are very excited to add them to our family!

Akut joins another local player, Ryan Landry, on team that finished 8-5-5 a season ago.

The Dukes ran into a tough Fordham team twice last year, including in a 3-0 playoff loss to the eventual Atlantic 10 champions.

Here’s an interview with Brooks last week as the team was preparing for August 25 season opener at home against St. Francis (PA).

 

6.) WVU WOMEN / PENN STATE REMAIN IN NATIONAL HUNT 

In 2015, Penn State’s women won the National Championship.

In 2016, West Virginia’s program reached new heights with an unprecedented run to the National Championship game.

WVU women's soccerThis year, WVU opens the season as the top-ranked program in the nation, already starting strong with a 1-0 win at 5th ranked Georgetown.

“I believe that this returning group is ready for the challenge. I’m looking forward to seeing how this team embraces these opportunities,” Nikki Izzo-Brown, WVU Head Coach, said.

“We have been a good program for some time now, so the target is going to be on our backs.  It’s been a good spring, and we’re really looking forward to the Fall season now.”

Fifteen letterwinners, including nine starters, return for the Mountaineers, led by 2016 NSCAA All-America Second Team honoree Michaela Abam. The forward paced WVU with a career single-season high 33 points (12 G, 9 A), which ranked No. 24 nationally.

One local product who will continue to feature for the Mountaineers will be junior Hannah Abraham (Albert Gallatin).  Abraham, a left-footed outside midfielder/forward was a key player in last year’s National Runner-up finish, scoring four goals and two assists as a sophomore.

While Penn State opened this unranked, they’ve already made a case that they’ll still be a strong team, beating 8th ranked BYU in the opener, 1-0.

Coming off a 12 goal, three assist 2016 campaign, former Greensburg Central Catholic and Beadling standout Frannie Crouse enters her senior season poised to once again lead the Nittany Lions attack.  The former WPIAL’s all-time leading scorer, who’s high school scoring mark was eclipsed by another former GCC product, and now Notre Dame freshman Bailey Cartwright, is 15th all-time in points at PSU (78) and 12th in goals (33).

LOCAL DIVISION I SOCCER GAMES OF NOTE: 

Sunday, August 20 – Pitt 1, Duquesne 0 (Women)

Sunday, August 27 – Duquesne at #1 West Virginia (Women)

Saturday, September 2 – Penn State at West Virginia (Women)

Tuesday, September 19 – Robert Morris at Pitt (Men)

Sunday, September 24 –  Duquesne at Robert Morris (Men)

Tuesday, September 26 – West Virginia at Pitt (Men)

 

 

If you have any additional news to share, primarily about any players with local ties that are playing for schools outside of the immediate Pittsburgh area, feel free to send us an email (pghsoccerreport@gmail.com) or message us on one of our social media platforms.

 

LOOK FOR NEW EDITIONS OF THE PITTSBURGH SCHOLASTIC SOCCER SHOW THIS FALL SEASON WITH JOHN KRYSINSKY AND MIKE SPARKS.  

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