Aug. 15, 2012
After a successful spring season, the Pitt women’s soccer team looks to carry the momentum into the fall as it begins a new era under first-year head coach Greg Miller. The former Ohio State associate head coach became just the third head coach in the program’s 17-year history when he was hired in January.
Miller possesses extensive postseason experience – he helped guide the Buckeyes to seven NCAA Tournament appearances – which the Panthers hope will carry over into their program.
If the spring and one exhibition game this fall are any indication, the team has already made vast improvements. The Panthers recently tied No. 20 West Virginia – the defending Big East champion – in a tune-up game for the regular season, and before that, picked up four wins in six matches during the spring season. But more importantly, according to Miller, they made progress while learning a new style of play.
“Our goal this past spring was to get more fit, to become more organized, especially defensively, and to try to teach them a system of play that based on the personnel we have, suits us best,” Miller said. “I think we’re going to carry those same ideas into the fall. I think that’s going to be our model, just spending a lot of time on our defense, being organized and having a basic system of play.”
Pitt lost just two players to graduation, including the program’s all-time assists leader in Katie Ruhe, but returns its all-time goals leader and soon-to-be points leader, senior forward Ashley Cuba. Cuba has led the team in goals in each of her three seasons at Pitt, totaling 21 for her career and her 46 career points are just one shy of the program record set by Cande Ruiz (47 from 1998-2001).
“Ashley was our leading goal scorer last year so we’re going to look to have her be our go-to player,” Miller said. “We spent a lot of time with her and Dana DelleFemine in the spring to try to get them to play together and understand their roles. I thought they did a pretty good job of that from the beginning of the spring to the end.”
DelleFemine ranked second on the team in goals scored last season, fueled by a two-goal performance in the Panthers’ 6-1 win over conference foe St. John’s. It marked the second multi-goal game of her career.
Alex Charlebois, a transfer from the University of Missouri, will also see playing time at forward. As a freshman with the Tigers, she played in 18 games and tallied one assist.
The team will look to use four midfielders, led by junior Katie Lippert, who has logged a significant amount of playing time in each of her first two seasons at Pitt. Joining Lippert as potential starters in the midfield are a trio of sophomores: Lauren Yobbi, Madison Gritsch and Kari Cunard.
“We sort of have to do things by committee in the midfield,” Miller said. “But I think we have enough personnel that we can do things by numbers.”
The backline for the Panthers may provide the team’s most depth and experience, led by a pair of center backs in junior Caroline Keefer and redshirt sophomore Alyssa Meier. Keefer has been a staple on the team’s defensive unit right from the start of her first season on campus, starting every game of her first two seasons, while Meier started all 19 games of her redshirt freshman season. The two will be joined by Morgan Sharick, Jackie Poucel, Abby Baldys and Georgia transfer Riliegh McHugh to provide what Miller is hoping will be “one of the team’s strongest lines game in and game out.”
Miller says neither of the two returning goalies, Kristina Rioux or Nicole D’Agostino, has separated herself from the other as the guaranteed starter, but both saw a significant amount of playing time in the net last season. Rioux received the majority of the playing time and made 100 saves in 17 games, while D’Agostino appeared in five games, including two starts.
As a new coaching staff, Miller, who is joined by assistants Mike Baker, Ileana Moschos and volunteer Anthony James, will rely heavily on returning players to facilitate communication to the players. He says that will be a pivotal job for the team’s three captains, which were chosen by a team vote in the spring.
Rioux and Baldys will be the two main captains for the team, while Keefer was selected as an assistant captain.
“Any team needs to have good leadership. In the game of soccer, you don’t have the ability to call timeouts and fix things as the game goes on, so you need to have players on the field that can recognize certain situations or tendencies by your team and try to take care of that stuff,” Miller said. “If a team is struggling for a period, you need someone that can get everyone more focused on what they need to be doing. It’s important to have someone out there when the game is on the line you can count on them the most.”
Despite putting together a new coaching staff, Miller doesn’t anticipate any communication problems that could come along with the formation of a new group of leaders. Rather, he believes each of the assistants possess something that will bring growth to the team.
“We’re really excited about our staff. Both Mike and Ileana bring something entirely different, and our volunteer, Anthony James, will bring great experience to the staff as well,” Miller said. “It’s a great staff as far as continuity and camaraderie and I think that will spill over onto the kids and make them better.”
As for expectations, they are tempered for now. But the enthusiasm and eye toward future success is easily visible in the way the coach talks about the upcoming season and beyond.
“This being our first season it’s really exciting to be playing in a new facility and a new conference (Miller coached in the Big Ten last season). We don’t have a lot of high expectations or lofty goals; we’re just going to see what we have to work with and then gauge what we need to do based on where our talent level lies. We’re going to make this women’s soccer program exciting around campus.”
The Panthers will open the season on Friday, August 17, at Eastern Michigan, and will travel to play Michigan on Sunday, August 19. The team’s home opener will be against Robert Morris on Wednesday, August 22.