Pitt-Bradford overcame a sluggish first half to defeat Alfred State 4-0 in Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference play Wednesday at the Kessel Athletic Complex.
The Panthers (7-4, 3-1) struggled throughout the first half to get any great looks on net, and as a result, went scoreless on seven shots.
But a strong defensive performance kept them in the game early on, and then a second-half offensive explosion yielded four goals as UPB topped the Pioneers (0-11, 0-5).
“In a couple of games now, we haven’t played well in the first half,” said Pitt-Bradford men’s soccer head coach Nathan Whitehurst. “I don’t know what it is, but then we kind of get in a groove in the second half.”
That groove was evident immediately out of the gates after the intermission, thanks in large part to a tactical change by the Panthers.
Whitehurst inserted midfielder Nicholas “Nico” Pezo into the game, which marked only the second time the Peruvian midfielder has seen this field this season.
Pezo provided an immediate spark, as he picked up an assist and a goal within the first five minutes of the second half.
His goal came with 42:43 left in the game. Panther forward Chase Rider sent in a cross from the left side of the box, and Pezo put it into the back of the net with a header to put UPB on the scoreboard.
Then, just two minutes later, Pezo sent in a pass to Rider, who punched it in to double the Panther lead to 2-0.
“He hasn’t gotten a lot of playing time,” Whitehurst said of Pezo. “But he’s a technical player, and I wanted us to keep a little more possession, and I knew he could help with that. With his goal and assist, though, it added on for us. It was great.”
Rider struck again on an unassisted goal with about 30 minutes to go in the game, giving him a team-high 10 goals on the season.
Finally, with just a few minutes remaining in the game, freshman Spencer Sklar of Hinsdale, N.Y. punched home a goal after Alfred State goalkeeper Nico Coria misplayed a crossing pass.
With the win, UPB is now 5-0 at home this season, and also moves into the top four of the AMCC standings — an important spot to hold, as the league’s top four teams host playoff games in the AMCC Tournament’s first couple rounds.
These are concerns that prior Panther teams haven’t had the privilege of worrying about. Last year’s team finished 4-14 overall and 3-6 in AMCC play and second-to-last in the league’s final standings.
The difference, Whitehurst says, is in the team’s overall speed, and that’s been brought about in the past couple recruiting cycles.
“Our young guys and our speed have been the difference,” Whitehurst said. “Our speed gives teams a lot of trouble, and now we have freshmen and sophomores controlling the game. Our last two recruiting classes have been a big part of it, and it’s been a building process.”
It shows in the team’s stats. All four of the Panthers’ leading goal scorers — Rider (10), Thomas Kelly (6), Sklar (5) and Bradford native Brent Kennedy (4) — are sophomores or freshmen. In addition, goalkeeper Sihle Sezani, a sophomore, has recorded 65 saves and three shutouts. He had five saves against Alfred State.
“Sihle has done really well. He was a freshman last year and split time with a senior, and he’s taken over that (goalkeeper) role this year,” Whitehurst said. “He’s very vocal back there, and he’s a good leader.”
The young Panthers will have their work cut out for them in the coming days as they begin to wind the regular season down. UPB hosts Franciscan (8-2-2, 3-1-1) Saturday and then undefeated Penn State Behrend (11-1, 3-1) Tuesday. Behrend is presently the No. 10 team in NCAA Division III soccer, but will likely fall after Wednesday’s 1-0 loss to Medaille.
“I think the guys have taken to defending their home field, and we take pride in it. It’s a big thing to keep homefield (advantage),” Whitehurst said.
The Panthers then close with four more AMCC games before the AMCC Tournament begins Nov. 2.