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Pitt softball jumps into rankings with 5-0 start to the season

The Pitt softball program continues to make dramatic strides under head coach Holly Aprile. In 2015, the Panthers posted their best season reaching the regional finals in the NCAA Tournament. Last year, the team didn't make the NCAAs but had another solid year (31-21) and Sarah Dawson pitched the first perfect game in program history.

This season, the team is off to a good start in the quest for the NCAA Tournament again. The Panthers are 5-0 on the season and, for the first time in the history of the program, are ranked in the polls, checking in at No. 24 in the USA Today poll and No. 25 in the ESPN poll.

That ascension to the rankings came mostly on the two wins they scored against No. 20 Kentucky in the UCF Knights Invitational last weekend. In addition to those wins, the Panthers also knocked off Central Florida twice and beat Florida A&M. Pitt won by at least two runs in each contest.

The pitching rotation consisted of freshman Brittany Knight and junior Kayla Harris. Dawson, who threw that aforementioned perfect game, has come on in relief so far. She was an incredible 8-0 last year, so I have to imagine she might have chances to start later. Both starters were incredible over the weekend and Knight has yet to give up an earned run. Behind a perfect 3-0 record and a complete game, she was named the ACC Pitcher of the Week.

The staff looks formidable to say the last. Knight, Harris, and Dawson have combined for a 1.17 ERA through five contests (two against a ranked Kentucky team). I'm always encouraged to see teams with strong starting pitching in the college ranks because you really only need two good ones to be competitive in baseball where the rotations consist of three guys. And in softball with teams often going with only two starters, Pitt's situation looks even better. The Panthers look like they have three competent starters and, offense aside, should be in games merely because of that.

This weekend, the women head to the ACC/Big Ten Challenge (yes, those are in softball, too) to face Nebraska in a pair of games and Northwestern in a pair of games down in Florida while the weather warms up around these parts. It's early, but so far, the Panthers have a promising start to the year.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

President Trump won't fill out NCAA brackets on ESPN

President Donald Trump will be skipping March Madness this year.

>> Read more trending news

The White House said Wednesday that the president will not pick brackets for the 2017 men's and women's tournaments, ESPN reported.

"We expressed our interest to the White House in continuing the presidential bracket,” ESPN said in a statement. “They have respectfully declined."

In an email to the Washington Post, White House spokesman Hope Hicks said: "We look forward to working with ESPN on another opportunity in the near future."

Former President Barack Obama, a big basketball fan, had agreed in previous years to fill out brackets for the men’s and women’s tournaments and discuss his choices on ESPN’s “SportsCenter.”

A look at Pitt's new defensive line coach, Charlie Partridge

I never got around to it but Pitt and defensive line coach Tom Sims parted ways earlier this month right after National Signing Day. KDKA's Richie Walsh had it first, I believe.

The Panthers' line was, I thought, pretty strong all year long. They were eighth nationally against the run and also eighth in sacks. If you ask most fans about the biggest problem areas of the team, defensive line would be pretty far down, I imagine. The timing, too, was a little interesting in that it came right after National Signing Day when players were already on board. And that Sims is a Pitt alum that played in the NFL makes it a little more curious. Interesting all the way around, to say the least.

To replace Sims, Pitt brought back a familiar face in former assistant Charlie Partridge. The Panthers have the pro-Partridge view here.

Experience? Check. Partridge has 20 years of that sprinkled across college football. A good chunk of that was in the FBS. He was at Iowa State as a football operations guy, at Pitt for five years on the defensive line and with linebackers and special teams, and coached defensive lines for Wisconsin and Arkansas.

Partridge then left Arkansas to take a head job at FAU, which, if we're being honest, was a disaster. He was 9-27 there and won only three games each year while playing in Conference USA. He was fired this past season after going 3-9 and only 2-6 in the conference.

And if you're the type of fan that likes stability, you could have it here with Partridge. No assistant is ever safe, but given his recent FAU stint, he isn't likely to get a head job right away. Defensive coordinator? Maybe, I suppose.

There's no getting around that head coaching job but Pitt isn't hiring him in that role. If you take that out of the equation, it's hard to find much fault with hiring him as a position coach. I've got zero problems with the hire and the fact that he coached here before and is going to be familiar with the recruiting territory, etc., means there's less of a learning curve. He's got a lot of experience, has been around major programs, and has some head coaching experience. To get a guy like that as a position coach is hard to quibble with.

I'm not sure what happened with Sims and head coach Pat Narduzzi, but in terms of a replacement, this one seems pretty solid.

Thoughts?

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

Pitt falls to Virginia Tech at home, 66-63

"In position to steal one on the road."

Truer words could not be spoken. Those were the words from one of the announcers near the end of the game. And steal it, the Hokies did.

For all intents and purposes, Pitt had their game against Virginia Tech on Tuesday night won. The Panthers raced out to an early double digit lead and held a comfortable lead for most of the game. For around 30 minutes, Pitt clearly outplayed Virginia Tech. I don't even think they trailed until past the midway point of the second half. Still, the Panthers couldn't hold on and lost to Virginia Tech, 66-63.

If you're looking for the deciding stretch in the game, look no further than a pretty unfortunate foul by Michael Young. Typically, one foul doesn't change the course of a game. And if we're being fair to Young here, his foul was hardly the only thing that cost Pitt. Pitt had a four-point lead late in the game and on the final possession, had three different looks from the three-point line to tie things up. Young's foul hurt (a lot) but certainly wasn't the only reason Pitt lost tonight.

But in terms of finding the biggest game-changer tonight, well, it was easily that sequence.

If you missed the game and need a recap, here goes. Up six points in the second half, Virginia Tech had a fast break going. Instead of giving up an easy layup, Young fouled. Unfortunately, the Hokies made the shot anyway. Not only that, but Young was assessed an intentional foul call, which also gave Virginia Tech two free throws and the ball. They knocked down both shots at the line then hit a three-pointer.

In one sequence, you had a seven-point swing. That gave the Hokies a one-point lead and after trading leads back and forth, they prevailed.

My thoughts?

First, the old adage here certainly applies. If you're going to foul in that situation, you better make sure the guy gets a hard, clean foul so you're not assessed an intentional foul call and so the guy doesn't make the shot. Young did neither.

About that intentional foul, though. Perhaps I'm wrong on this but the call didn't look so clear cut to me. In watching the replay several times, it looked like Young very clearly fouled, but then reached out his arms to stop the Virginia Tech player from falling. What the announcers seemed to keep saying (incorrectly) was that Young grabbed the player as the foul. The foul came before that, then the grab, which seemed to be to concede the foul.

I don't know the nuances of the rule but they did flash it on the screen and it said something about grabbing a player triggering that call. I would argue, however, that it wasn't the grab that was the foul - rather, Young fouled before that.

I didn't see much complaining from Young with regards to that call so maybe I've got that one wrong. But if you watch the replay, you'll see exactly what I'm talking about. I can see why the call made because the refs are likely programmed to make that call if they see two arms wrapped around a guy but, to me, it looked Young was conceding the foul and merely not trying to hurt the guy because they were going at a pretty good speed towards the basket.

Final thought on the Young stuff. Regardless of how the call went, etc., Young has to either let the guy go there or foul without the intentional. Give a hard foul to the shooting arm and let it go at that. There's simply no reason to put yourself in that type of position and as a senior especially, you just have to know that.

The loss is particularly frustrating because Pitt seemed to be gaining some momentum. They weren't even completely out of the NCAA Tournament discussion according to some pundits because of their RPI. But to lose a game like this when you had such command of the game ... you just sort of want to pull your hair out, no?

Pitt had the game at home, had a nice lead, and was playing, mostly, pretty well. The Young sequence really changed things and Pitt could never get fully back on track. That's a lot of points to give up on one possession and in a conference game, every point often matters.

Also part of the problem was that Pitt's offense wasn't exactly firing on all cylinders. They played a good first half but their second half with only 23 points was one of their worst outputs of the year. Young and Artis weren't terrible tonight, but they scored 'only' 30 points on 13-34 shooting. That's about ten points less than they usually do and a lot of misses. While Cam's 17 helped, it wasn't enough on a team that is really a three-man crew in terms of offense.

Silver lining for me is that Cam Johnson appears to be stepping up more and more. He's the lone guy back among the starters next year and to see him taking on more of a role is encouraging. He even led the team with 12 rebounds, which is pretty insane. Johnson also nearly had a triple double with seven assists, including one really smart play when he tipped a ball to Artis for a layup on a fast break. I continue to maintain that he will get NBA consideration in two years and that's looking more and more possible with each passing game.

For now, though, this loss hurts. Had Pitt not shown much lately, it would be just another loss this year. But with the way they'd been playing coming into this one, it's just frustrating.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

Against the Odds: Pitt gets the points over Virginia Tech

Due to recent events, Vegas has given Pitt points in their game against Virginia Tech.

Virginia Tech is coming off a grueling double overtime win over in-state rival UVA. Pitt is coming off two straight wins and has looked like they actually care for the better part of the last few weeks. Add to this that the game this evening is at the friendly Pete with The Oakland Zoo behind the Panthers, and Vegas has given Pitt the favorite status by 3.5 points.

The game will begin at 7PM this evening and can be viewed on ESPN2. Buzz Williams will bring in the Hokies into this contest with a 17-7 record and 6-6 in the ACC. Williams is only in his third year in Blacksburg, but he’s taken VT from the conference laughing stock to a team no one takes lightly anymore. We all remember Williams’ dancing ways at Marquette, so Pitt will hope to keep him from doing a little shuffle in front of The Zoo on Valentine’s Day.

As mentioned, the Panthers are playing much better lately since that little 55 point embarrassment against Louisville a few weeks ago. They now stand at 14-11 and are 3-9 in the conference. Kevin Stallings seems to have gotten through to the team and Pitt is suddenly getting contributions from reserves too. Ryan Luther could also be very close to coming back as well, which could make Pitt someone that teams just don’t want to face in the ACC tournament.

The Panthers want to get one of those winning streak things going and will need a big win this evening to do it. The NCAA Tournament may just be a pipe dream for Pitt this season. They dug that hole way too deep to come out of it, but the competitive basketball has been much more fun to watch for fans. The Panthers need to keep it going this evening and could use a nice boost from the home crowd.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author@BrunoPittsburgh

Panther of the Week: Mike Young

Mike Young delivers two great games as Pitt has a rare 2-0 week in the ACC

Senior Mike Young snags his second straight Panther of the Week honor this week, but it was not without competition. Sheldon Jeter had two solid outings getting a double-double in the win over Syracuse and dropping 17 points on Boston College. Cam Johnson poured in 22 points in the win over the Orange and Jamel Artis had a double-double of his own in Saturday’s win. However, Young is the one player that stood above them all in both games.

Young started his week at Boston College by looking like a man playing among boys. He finished with 30 points to go along with seven rebounds, two assists, one steal, and two blocks. The Duquesne native shot 11 of 19 from the floor and nailed six out of eight from the charity stripe. He followed that up with 21 points and nine rebounds and a nifty six assists on Saturday. To have a big man who can score and then throw off a defense with six assists, it becomes a headache for the defense. The senior finished the Cuse victory with seven out of thirteen shooting and also hit seven of nine from the line.

The lack of caring by Pitt over such a long ACC stretch could ultimately cost them a tournament spot in the end. However, watching Young, Artis, Jeter, Johnson, and others play up to their capability reminds you how much fun it is to watch Pitt hoops. It certainly beats what we were seeing and I’ll take it any day.

Young led the way for everyone and proved he doesn’t want to go out like that. The rest of the team got the message, too. Some of the previous weeks were absolutely painful to pick a Panther of the Week. The past two weeks featured one where Pitt went 0-2 and then reversed it the following one. Both weeks had one thing in common, though - it was a lot more fun picking a stand out player when they team plays well

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author@BrunoPittsburgh

No. 24 Pitt wrestling knocks off Virginia, 19-14, for first ACC win

Unfortunately, the Pitt wrestling meet against Virginia wasn't available anywhere to watch, so this recap will be a bit less detailed because of that. But the Panthers pulled out a 19-14 win over conference foe Virginia on the road on Sunday to pull off the weekend sweep after defeating Iowa State Friday night.

Like Friday, we didn't start off with the 125-pounders. Instead, the dual started with the heavyweight level. There, Ryan Solomon was impressive, winning his bout, 11-1. L.J. Bentley continued to struggle, though, and was soundly defeated at 125 pounds, 15-1. Dom Forys won at 133 and Nick Zanetta at 141 lost to trade three-point decisions and Pitt found itself trailing, 8-7.

The Bentley stuff remains beyond frustrating. He's now 12-11 on the year and basically has become a toss-up guy, as I think I mentioned in the Iowa State recap. And losing by the likes of 15-1 really makes you wonder what's going on there. Last year, he was 19-12 overall and was an NCAA qualifier. He's still got two years of eligibility left so his career isn't over by any stretch. But to see him take such a pronounced step back after showing some good signs of things to come last season is kind of a head-scratcher.

Fortunately, things picked up a little after that. The Panthers got six big points out of Mikey Racciato (149 pounds) and Taleb Rahmani (157 pounds), who both won in Sudden Victory. Teshan Campbell was again impressive with a comfortable 9-2 win and that pushed the Panthers ahead, 16-8. Donovan McAfee, who has struggled since getting into the starting lineup at 174 pounds, lost as Virginia pulled to within five making it 16-11.

I'm not going to gush much more over Rahmani but the kid just keeps winning. He's now 18-6 on the year and has a team-high eight pins on the season with the one he got Friday. As I said earlier, I think that kid will have a good chance at being a ranked wrestler in the future.

That McAfee loss was big since it meant Pitt would need to win at least one of the final two bouts to win. Fortunately, Zach Bruce took care of that with a narrow victory at 184 pounds. John Rizzo's bout at 197 was inconsequential at that point and he lost, 3-2.

Add it up and Pitt walks away with a 19-14 win to move to 10-5 on the year. The Panthers are in decent position to move up in the rankings after going 2-0 this week.

Defeating Virginia gives the Panthers their first ACC win of the year. Having already lost to North Carolina, Virginia Tech, and North Carolina State, they are guaranteed to finish with a losing record in conference. The Panthers will finish the regular season at home against Duke next weekend and then jump into the ACC Tournament and ultimately, the NCAA Tournament.

From a team perspective, this year has been mostly a throwaway. With the Peters dismissal and suspensions, the season was sort of thrown into disarray. The good news is that, from an individual standpoint, Pitt should be sending several guys to the NCAA Tournament. And the three ranked guys, Forys, Campbell, and Solomon, should have a chance to contend for All-American status. The deeper they can go, along with possibly a couple of others, will be beneficial for Pitt's overall showing at the event.

After that begins the work of getting started with a new coach and laying the foundation to push this program to the next level.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

Pitt tops Syracuse for second straight win, 80-75

Wondering where this Pitt team has been? Join the crowd.

Things got a little hair at the end as Syracuse closed the gap, but the Panthers continued their mini-resurgence with an 80-75 win against Syracuse on Saturday. And while it's only the team's second victory in a row, it marks the fourth consecutive strong effort we've seen when you count the road losses to North Carolina and Duke where they hung with both teams.

Jamel Artis' ankle, which was a concern coming in, seems fine.  I thought he was moving around a little timidly on defense at the start of the game but he looked back to his former self a little later. On the day, he finished with 16 points and ten assists. That assist number is a season-high and quite possibly a career-high. Michael Young added 21 points and Sheldon Jeter had 11 rebounds.

But it was Cam Johnson, who led the team in scoring with 22 points while knocking down 6-8 three-pointers. Cam had a couple of rough games in his past two contests. He rebounded fairly well in those games and also played some good defense with five steals, but he had a total of only ten points on 3-12 shooting. Seeing him play so well on the offensive end was a great thing to watch.

Also noteworthy in this game was that Michael Young played his first game in a while without the face guard he'd been wearing.

Personally, I enjoyed a couple of things in particular about today's game. First, there was the effort on defense. Pitt was hustling around out there, going for loose balls, and not conceding much of anything. There were a few lapses, but they were solid at both ends of the court today. They gave up 75 points so it's not as if they pitched a shutout or anything, but if you watched the game, you could see the defensive intensity was there.

And speaking of hustle, what Pitt did to Syracuse on the boards was criminal. The Panthers outrebounded Syracuse, 41-25, and that was as big a reason as any why they were able to win.

On offense, Pitt also adeptly handled a Syracuse trap for much of the second half. Even when the program has had good point guards, they've struggled with breaking presses at times. There weren't any such issues today as Pitt was mostly pretty good at not only getting the ball past midcourt, but getting fast break points, too.

It's not as if Pitt played a perfect game, too. That made the win even more impressive. The Panthers had 17 turnovers on the day and need to clean some of that up. But that was about the only thing they did wrong today.

Where Pitt goes from here isn't exactly clear. If we're being honest here, Pitt isn't exactly playing themselves back into NCAA Tournament contention right now. But if they've proven anything, it's that they're not simply going to roll over and die just yet.

Next up is a Valentine's Day date with Virginia Tech at home. If the Panthers can pull off a win there, suddenly that next game against No. 14 Florida State after it looks a lot more interesting.

With a couple of wins, where are you at with the season? Let me know in the poll below.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.
Poll After two wins, what are your thoughts on the state of Pitt basketball? Feeling much better - all aboard the Kevin Stallings train A little better - definitely more interested Okay, but not much has changed This is fools gold - it won't last   38 votes | Results

Against the Odds: Cuse gets the slight edge from Vegas over Pitt

Syracuse rides a five game winning streak and Vegas gives them a slight edge over Pitt

It’s an old-fashioned Big East matchup this afternoon at The Pete when Syracuse tangles with Pitt. No word on if Kevin Stallings will celebrate and set his DVR for this old rivalry. He probably won’t have a problem with this game as we expect the final score to get out of the 50s. The Cuse rides a five game winning streak, while Pitt finally got off their eight game slide with a road victory over Boston College last time out. Vegas still gives Syracuse a 1.5 point edge this afternoon.

Jim Boeheim brings Syracuse to his favorite venue today at 16-9 and 8-4 in the conference. Pitt bumped their record up, after last game, and now sits at 13-11 and 2-9 in the ACC. We tip off at 1PM and hopefully the Oakland Zoo will give the Panthers a fun atmosphere.

Syracuse has absolutely had their problems versus Pitt, but did wind up on top in their first meeting this season (or as some are now calling it Pitt AD - After Dixon). Stallings will look for Mike Young to build on his monster effort against Boston College and get some help from someone other than Jamel Artis to attempt to push together a streak. As Lou Brown once said: “You won yesterday. You win today...win tomorrow...that’s called a winning streak. It has happened before.”

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author@BrunoPittsburgh

No. 24 Pitt wrestling tops Iowa State, 22-15

After losing last weekend to North Carolina State, PItt's wrestling team (9-5) got things going again with a win against Iowa State (1-10), 22-15.

I didn't get around to a recap for that matchup but the Panthers had a pretty strong showing against the No. 8 Wolfpack, losing 23-15. In fact, Pitt even moved up a spot in this week's rankings despite that loss.

Things against the Cyclones started with the 133-pounders, so we actually finished with the 125-pound match after the heavyweights. 133 pounds was some way to start because it was the best matchup of the night with two top 15 guys. Ranked wrestler Dom Forys got Pitt off to a good start and got some revenge by defeating No. 11 Earl Hall, 6-2. Hall knocked Forys out in last year's NCAA Tournament and, I believe, kept him from All-American status in that bout. To say Dom wanted that match was probably an understatement. Nick Zanetta kept things going with a 9-4 win to put Pitt up 6-0.

Mikey Racciato, though, continued to struggle at 149 pounds. Last week against North Carolina State, he picked up a pin. This week, it was him on the receiving end of a pin to an unranked wrestler. Racciato's up and down season continues, unfortunately. He's still a guy you can count on to be in matches, but is losing enough this season that you can no longer expect to get three points out of him. He's really becoming the definition of a toss-up guy, which is sort of a shame. I love the way that kid wrestles.

The good news is that Pitt got those six points back as Taleb Rahmani scored a pin of his own. I'm really high on Rahmani and he just seems to be getting better and better. I don't know when it will happen but Rahmani has every bit the look of a guy that will be ranked at some point. That kid is more impressive by the week and I don't think it's a stretch at all to consider him the fourth best grappler in the lineup right now.

That put Pitt up 12-6 and the Panthers would just pull away a little from there. Teshan Campbell had yet another dominant match, winning 15-5. And while the inexperienced Donovan McAfee lost his match at 174 pounds, he was going up against an All-American and lost only 2-1. A Zach Bruce win followed as Pitt extended the lead to 19-9. Ryan Solomon won his bout 3-2 and L.J. Bentley lost by that same score to close things up, so they split. Add it all up, and Pitt wins 22-15.

Overall, it was a solid showing from Pitt. Iowa State isn't a good team and Pitt did what they should have. The Racciato pin was disappointing as was Rizzo's loss, since he held a late lead. And ultimately, you want to see Bentley doing better than the slightly better than .500 wrestler he's become. But Pitt came out and had a relatively comfortable win and their top three guys, Forys, Campbell, and Solomon, all carry some momentum in their pursuit of All-American status. Not a bad night as they have a day off before wrestling Virginia on Sunday.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

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