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Pitt baseball team off to shocking start

| Friday, March 1, 2013, 9:06 p.m.
Pitt catcher Elvin Soto takes his turn at bat against Wichita State earlier this season. (University of Pittsburgh)

Wichita State's sports teams are called the Shockers, but the label was a better fit for Pitt.

Amid reminders of the rich Wichita State baseball tradition, the Panthers two weeks ago opened their 2013 season by taking three straight on the road from the Shockers. It was a stunning and unique experience for Shockers coach Gene Stephenson, who has the most Division I wins since he was hired in 1977. Not only had a Stephenson club never been swept at home, it was the first time for the program in 43 years.

Mostly taking aim at his own club afterward (“This might be an all-time low”), Stephenson said of the Panthers, “For a team to come in here from the north and sweep us for the first time in history is not only remarkable, it speaks volumes about them.”

Although Wichita State's Eck Stadium was less than half filled to its 7,851 capacity in each game, it ranks among the most impressive college facilities. “Pure college baseball,” Pitt coach Joe Jordano described it. “It's incredible.”

“When you walk in they have all their accolades (on display),” sophomore catcher Elvin Soto said. “It's pretty neat how they have it set up.”

But Jordano said his club never felt awed or intimidated, even believing it could pull off a sweep. Nevertheless, he said, “To go into such a storied place and have an expectation to sweep and then accomplish it is incredible. It's a good feeling. I know the team is feeling confident, but there's still a lot to do.”

Pitt followed that up by taking two of three on the road in North Carolina against Wofford, which might lack Wichita State's reputation and name recognition but still posed a challenge.

The Panthers play UNC Asheville on Saturday in the Bulldog Challenge in Charleston, S.C.

Jordano, whose 432 wins are No. 1 in Pitt history, has been named Big East coach of the year seven times while rebuilding a program that lacked facilities and tradition before his arrival. Close losses and youth contributed to last year's .500 overall record (10-17 in the Big East), but with more experience this season, expectations are higher.

“I think we're gonna make some pretty good noise in the Big East and in college baseball,” said Soto, who caught every game as a freshman last season. “We're pretty equipped all around.”

“I like where we're at,” said Jordano, starting his 16th season at Pitt. “We're still relatively young, but we have a nice balance of experience and youth. Overall, it's a nice mix.”

No longer dealing with Trees Field — “arguably the worst in the country,” Jordano said — the program has benefited from a new ballpark, increased funding and more scholarships. But Jordano said success results from more than that.

“We're very blue-collar,” he said. “Let's work hard every day and focus on what we can control and keep moving forward. I think we really have embraced from Day 1 the personality of the city of Pittsburgh.”

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bcohn@tribweb.com or via Twitter@BCohn_Trib.

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