PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Panthers women’s team has made some impressive strides to become competitive in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the toughest division in the college game, under head coach Greg Miller.
It would have been reasonable to expect that upward trajectory to continue this year after the Panthers finished 10-7-1 overall in 2015 (4-6 ACC) with promising freshman forward Jarena Harmon notching a team-leading seven goals. Instead, Miller’s stuttering side sits 0-2-1 after dropping a couple of home games in the season’s opening week.
Circumstances have conspired to weaken Pitt’s front line after the graduation of the program’s all-time points leader Roosa Arvas. Harmon unexpectedly transferred to Maryland in the offseason to be closer to family in Washington, D.C. while an untimely injury to Canadian junior Taylor Pryce has shorn Miller of his top three attacking weapons from last year.
“We can’t make excuses,” Miller told The Soccer Observer after Thursday’s 1-0 loss to Colorado College at Ambrose Urbanic Field. “We have to deal with whatever personnel we have.”
Midfielder Juliana Vasquez and defender Seyla Perez took commendable turns at filling the center-forward void against Colorado with senior fullback Arielle Fernandez moonlighting as a left-winger. Yet it was clear early in the game that the Panthers desperately need an experienced, knowledgeable presence to lead the line.
Pitt’s propensity to get caught on the counter after Colorado forced turnovers with their well-drilled pressing in midfield was of greater immediate concern to Miller. Clara Richter grabbed the game’s only goal on 28 minutes when Pitt’s shorthanded defense failed to clear after Ashley Paquet initially blocked a shot from Chanisse Hendrix
Richter left Panthers goalkeeper Taylor Francis helpless with a superb shot into the far corner from 18 yards out.
Better decision-making by Richter could have doubled Colorado’s advantage before halftime. The 5-foot-10-inch sophomore shot from a tough angle when she had two teammates free inside the penalty box.
“We talked before the game about how our defensive shape is when we have the ball,” Miller said.
“It cost us at times when we’re trying to expand, trying to get big, trying to move into pockets and seams and we carelessly turn the ball over.”
There were definite positives for Pitt to take into Sunday’s non-conference clash with Xavier. Sophomore forward Sarah Krause improved as the game progressed with her ability to turn out of tight spots and run at Colorado’s defense. A couple of penetrating passes in the closing minutes almost connected with Perez and Hanna Hannesdottir, although Krause was largely bereft of that natural striker to play up to and feed off given the team’s current circumstances.
Pitt’s closest efforts unsurprisingly came from distance. Freshman forward Christiana Davey peeled in from the left to fire a looping shot just wide of the far post after entering the game as a late first-half substitute. Colorado goalkeeper Molly Hiniker swatted away a similar effort by Bri Shingary in the second half.
Miller’s first year, Pitt’s last in the Big East, saw the Panthers blown out 8-0 in one game against Georgetown en route to a 2-6-2 conference record. The hefty reverses continued in 2013 when Pitt went 0-13 after transferring to the ACC.
Signs of life emerged in 2014 as Miller’s coaching and recruiting began to pay dividends. Arvas scored a late penalty kick at Syracuse to seal a first ACC win and the Panthers showed greater resilience against conference powerhouses like Duke, Notre Dame and North Carolina.
Pitt then surged to 9-1-1 record by the end of last September after an 8-game winning streak that included the scalps of ACC foes North Carolina State, Wake Forest and Louisville.
Harmon’s departure resonated Thursday when she scored a hat trick in Maryland’s 3-2 win against William & Mary while her former teammates toiled in the final third.
“We’ve proved in moments that we’re capable,” Miller said. “We’re asking some players to do what they haven’t done before and others to play at a level that they haven’t done before.
“We have to make the best of whatever we have, get back to some fundamentals and hope our kids respond.”
Pittsburgh (4-2-3-1): Taylor Francis – Bri Shingary, Alli Higgs, Ashley Paquet, Emily Pietrangelo – Niki Hopkins, Hanna Hannesdottir – Arielle Fernandez, Sarah Krause, Alex Wright – Juliana Vasquez
Colorado College (4-4-2): Molly Hiniker – Aleesa Muir, Tanner Haughn, Anna Gregg, Anne-Sophie Lapointe – Lauren Milliet, Sarah Lyons, Kelli Sullivan, Madeline Stesney – Dana Gornick, Clara Richter
28’ | COL – Clara Richter (Chanisse Hendrix)