Panther-lair - The 3-2-1 Column: A good spring for Pitt, feeling normal, and more
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The 3-2-1 Column: A good spring for Pitt, feeling normal, and more

In this week’s 3-2-1 column we take a look at the success of the athletic department in recent weeks, can the basketball or football program achieve similar success, and what next month will look like.

Three things we know

Pitt soccer is on the rise

The Pitt men’s soccer program lost last week in the NCAA National semifinals to Indiana by a score of 1-0. It was a disappointing end to an otherwise spectacular season for the program. In fact, there is no question about it, the 2020-21 season was the best season in Pitt men’s soccer history. The team finished No. 3 in the country in the United Coaches Top 25, the highest ever finish in school history.

Pitt posted a 16-4 overall record with a 9-1 conference record and lost in the ACC Final to Clemson. Pitt then drew the No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament and advanced to its first ever College Cup. Along the way, Pitt dispatched Monmouth 6-1, UCF 4-0, and Washington 3-0 before bowing out to the Hoosiers.

The program almost had a clean sweep in the ACC postseason awards. Jay Vidovich was the Coach of the Year, Valentin Noel was the league’s offensive player of the year, while Jasper Löeffelsend grabbed defensive player of the year, and for good measure Bertin Jacquesson was the freshman of the year.

So what does all this mean? I tend to think it means this program isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Vidovich is clearly showing he is one of the best coaches in the sport, which isn’t a surprise after his impressive run at Wake Forest. His ability to take Pitt from a basement dweller in the ACC to national championship contender in six seasons is one of the best turnaround stories in all of college athletics right now. As long as Pitt retains Vidovich, the program should continue to hum right along. Even if he moves on eventually, he’s laid a blueprint and a foundation for future success. This is a program that should continue to be towards the top of the very competitive ACC, and if you can compete in that league, you can win national championships.

Pitt Volleyball is here to stay

The Pitt volleyball program also enjoyed a special run this spring with a run to the Elite 8 of the NCAA Tournament. The Panthers lost to Washington in the national quarterfinals 3 sets to 2. It was a spirited match and the Panthers were so close to making the Final 4.

This 2020 season was perhaps the finest of Dan Fisher’s tenure. No, Pitt didn’t win the ACC like it had in the previous three seasons, but the growth the team showed from the beginning of the season to the end is really what made it special. Pitt started the year 4-4 in the fall, before the season picked up in the spring. The Panthers then reeled off 14 consecutive wins including NCAA Tournament wins over LIU, No. 10 Utah, and No. 3 Minnesota before the loss to Washington.

The Panthers were led by All-American seniors Kayla Lund and Chinaza Ndee. Lund was named the ACC Player of the Year for the second year in a row. Not only that, both players announced they will be returning next season for the extra year granted by the NCAA.

Under the guidance of Fisher, Pitt has become a power in the ACC, and nationally as well. This run in the NCAA Tournament was the deepest in school history and with Lund and Ndee and a strong supporting cast returning, there’s no reason to think another big year isn’t on the horizon.

Couple the current foundation with the future of moving into a brand new arena as a part of the Victory Height initiative, this program probably still has a higher ceiling it can reach. Fisher cited the new facilities will only help with recruiting, and it should make for Pitt to be one of the more attractive programs in the country moving forward.

Pitt baseball is the biggest surprise

The surprise of the entire athletic department this year has to be the baseball program. We knew volleyball and soccer would have good teams, maybe not to the level they finished, but still they didn’t sneak up on anyone quite like the baseball team has this season. Entering the final weekend of the regular season, the Panthers sit in second place of the ACC Coastal with a 22-16 overall record and a 16-14 mark in league play.

Pitt was named one of the 20 possible host sites for the regionals in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, all but confirming the Panthers will be playing in their first NCAA Tournament since 1995. It’s a huge milestone for this program, as Pitt and most Northern schools are at a disadvantage to warmer weather states. The facilities at the Petersen Sports Complex are more impressive, and the new locker rooms were a big addition, but still looking at Pitt’s ACC peers, they are a notch below, and that’s to be expected.

So what Mike Bell and his staff are doing is quite impressive, not to mention this is only his third year at Pitt. If you look at it, it really is only his second year with 2020 being cut short after Pitt got off to a 10-6 start. Three years into his tenure, and Bell has Pitt contending for an ACC title with a NCAA Tournament berth in the future. It’s quite impressive.

The mantra of this team has been ‘Grit’ and they like to call themselves ‘Gritsburgh’ and that’s especially true. This team does not have a ton of star power, but it’s built around veteran bats like Nico Popa, Ron Washington Jr., Sky Duff, and Kyle Hess. The arms of Matt Gilbertson and Mitch Myers have been especially impressive, carrying Pitt to some big Friday and Saturday wins during the weekend series against ACC opponents.

The story on this team still has plenty to be written, but they have checked a lot of boxes and cleared a lot of hurdles as a program so far, with more opportunities ahead. Is Pitt going to turn into a baseball power? I’m not so sure, but can they compete in this league more than they have? I’m starting to think so. Bell is doing a really good job at a place that has been historically tough to win.

Two questions we have

So when will it be football’s turn?

With the success of some of the non-revenue sports in the athletic program, the questions start (or continue) to get asked about the two flagship programs: football and basketball. We’ll start with football in this discussion.

The Pitt football program has sort of been running in place for some time. Under Pat Narduzzi’s leadership, the team has achieved a level of stability it desperately needed after the Wannstedt-Graham-Haywood-Chryst whirlwind and overall you kind of know what you are getting with this team. They play in close games, they’ll win 7 or 8 of them, they play tough defense, and probably frustrate you as a fan along the way with a head-scratching loss or three.

Can Pitt get out of that rut? Pitt only has one 10-win season since 1981. That came in 2009 under Wannstedt. Since then, Pitt has won a maximum of 8 games four times, three of those years under Narduzzi. Can Pitt ever be more than this? It’s hard to say.

Pitt joined the ACC in 2013, and if we know anything about Pitt’s division is that we never really know anything about it. The Coastal is chaos. Period. No program has ever taken it for good. Miami recruits like a top-10 program, but the results rarely match. North Carolina appears to be on the rise, but again that’s not the first time the Heels have had a big season either. Virginia Tech doesn’t have the same feel as it did under Frank Beamer 10-15 years ago. Duke, Georgia Tech, and Virginia seem to be behind the others.

So we’ve had this conversation before, there’s really no reason Pitt can’t be right there most years in its division, and in fairness, they are. Narduzz’s ACC record is generally solid, albeit with some questionable losses mixed in there. But in the past few months, senior quarterback Kenny Pickett opted to stay for an extra year, which is a huge boost. Pitt also just had six guys drafted, and Narduzzi signed his highest rated recruiting. There’s a good run of stability around here at the moment, and really there’s nobody stopping them from winning 9 or 10 games next year, well other than themselves. And hasn’t that been the problem for a long time now?

Can Pitt basketball turn it around anytime soon?

It doesn’t feel that long ago Pitt made the NCAA Tournament 13 years in a 15-year stretch. Because it wasn’t that long ago. That’s maybe been the hardest thing to wrap my head around when evaluating the Pitt basketball program these days. Like, DeJuan Blair and Sam Young and Brad Wanamaker and Ashton Gibbs and whoever - they were playing in front of the Oakland Zoo like a few years ago. Well, maybe longer than that with each passing year.

This program is in a terrible rut, one that hasn’t been around this program since the late 1990’s. We’re talking five straight season without a postseason berth, and it’s not like they are just missing the tournament, they are one of the worst teams in the power-five conferences these days.

19 ACC wins in five years. Woof.

We always hear the same lines, ‘It’s not the same as it was in the Big East’ and yea, I get that. Things change, but you can adapt and this program hasn’t done a good job of that. Pitt plays in a good arena, with facilities that were recently redone, and yes, they were also long overdue. While Pitt does not have a good home recruiting base in Pittsburgh, it’s still within reach of all the major metropolitan areas of the Northeast, and even some in the Midwest.

So I think there’s a world in which Pitt can be a solid program again. Are we talking like 2002-2011 again? Maybe make the tournament first and we’ll talk about that.

As for the current state, I have always believed Jeff Capel was a good hire. I also believed it would be a long haul to get out of the basement. There have been a few more bumps along the way than expected, and I’m still waiting to see what he can do in the next year or two, but it hasn’t gone as smoothly as I thought it would.

One prediction

June will feel normal again

Alright we talked a lot about some other things, how about some recruiting? The COVID-19 pandemic was something to behold on a world stage of course, but how about our little corner of the world covering Pitt sports? There were no camps or visits, or anything. Last summer was dull and boring. There were no official visits to track down, no recruits to interview, hell we didn’t even know if there would be a college football season at this time last year.

Now? Things feel different. Now things are starting to feel normal. We’ve confirmed over 20 official visitors in the class of 2022 set to take visits next month, the same procedure this staff has been using in the 2019 and 2020 classes: flood Pittsburgh with a bunch of visitors, land some commitments, and fill up the most of the class before the team has its first fall practice.

Pat Narduzzi announced a full schedule of rising star camps and team camps for next month as well. There will be recruits and prospects all over Pitt’s Southside facility again - how it used to be in June. So instead of sitting around and waiting for stuff to happen, in a few weeks we’ll have stuff to talk about again. Plenty of stuff. It’s exciting for the coaches, athletes, fans, and the guys that cover this stuff on a day to day basis. This June will feel normal. And that’s pretty alright with me.