Pitt Hosts No. 1 Michigan in Big WCLA Matchup
by J. Jude Hazard | LaxMagazine.com
"It's hands-down the biggest game that I've played in my four years at Pitt," Panthers captain Jillian Bonaroti says of Saturday's showdown with No. 1 Michigan.
© Dirk Dewachter
Gary Neft doesn't mince words. The University of Pittsburgh women's lacrosse coach is crystal clear on what Saturday's game against No. 1 Michigan Club means for his team.
"This is the biggest game that I've coached in in my tenure. This is the biggest home game that we've ever had," he said Thursday. "I'm expecting our place to be packed to the rafters with people."
Neft was hoarse Thursday evening after delivering an impassioned late night speech to his team prior to the big game. Pitt and Michigan are rivals in the Women's Collegiate Lacrosse League, a conference of the US Lacrosse Women's Collegiate Lacrosse Associates (WCLA), and have traded barbs in both the regular season and postseason over the last several years. Neft can only recall two victories in his nine-year tenure against the Wolverines.
Panthers senior captain Jillian Bonaroti has never beaten Michigan.
"Michigan is one of those teams for us," Bonaroti said. "It's always a great matchup and we have a ton of respect for their program and the success they've had. We always have these really great games with them and we never quite finish it out."
The Panthers usually don't have team meetings prior to home games, but this one's different. This is the first time that Pitt is hosting a No. 1-ranked team and is the first time Michigan has traveled to Pitt to face the Panthers. The game will go a long way in determining seeding in the conference tournament.
"It's hands-down the biggest game that I've played in my four years at Pitt. We're pretty excited," Bonaroti said. "We want to win the national championship this year. This game is going to be huge."
Neft said he focused on three main points during the team meeting. He told his team they have to limit turnovers, contain Michigan's dangerous fast-break transition offense and read the Wolverines' combination zone defense on the fly. He also threw in some fiery motivation that had the team cheering by the end of the hour-long meeting.
"I told them I don't care if they're No. 1 in the country, they're not better than you," Neft said. "If you play the with the capabilities that you have and [the way] I've seen you play, you can win this game. They're going to have to believe in themselves."
Pitt's balanced offense features five players with 10 or more points. Midfielder Kristina Hahn (16g, 3a) leads the team in points with 19. Neft said he is particularly pleased at how well the Panthers midfield has performed this season.
"Last year we were pretty top heavy on attack where we had two players on attack that had almost 85 percent of our points," he said. "This year we're getting a lot more contribution from our midfield. We've been able to move things around."
Pitt stands at 3-3 on the season and is ranked 12th in the latest WCLA Division I poll. The Panthers haven't lost a club-level game at home since 2009 when they fell to eventual national champion Virginia Tech.
Saturday's 4:30 p.m. tilt at the Cost Center on the Pitt campus is big for Michigan too. The Wolverines (4-1) are coming off a five-week layoff after an impressive showing in the Santa Barbara Shootout last month.
"We're not cruising on No. 1. We actually put very little stock in that ranking except that we know it puts a lot of motivation in teams we have to face," Michigan coach Ginny Hughes said. "Being a good team in February has very little to do with who is a good team later in the season when it matters."
Hughes said Michigan needs to play a great game on Saturday that combines intelligence on the field with lacrosse experience. None of the players or coaches on Michigan's current team have lost to Pitt.
"We still have a ton of work to do and the five week break was horrible for us. Everybody else in the country has been playing," she said. "There's a lot riding on the game."
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