Mars grads part of a new era for Pitt men's soccer

| Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

This year marks a new beginning for the Pitt men's soccer team.

The challenge, however, isn't any easier.

The Panthers began play in the Atlantic Coast Conference this fall after the university's sports programs left the Big East. While the move is exciting for the men's soccer squad, it knows the road remains difficult.

A pair of local players — Mars product Ryan McKenzie and Butler's Cory Werth — are ushering in the program's new era. They're looking forward to something new after the Panthers closed Big East play winless (0-8) last year.

“The past three years, we've struggled record-wise. This year, we're all more excited than ever,” McKenzie said. “We have a fresh start in the ACC. We have a good group of returning guys and new guys we're excited about. We have high expectations for ourselves, and we expect to do a lot better this season.

“The competition is not supposed to change too much. We played four top-10 teams last year. Georgetown played for the national championship last year, and Notre Dame and Syracuse came with us to the ACC. The quality is just as good, so it shouldn't be that much of an adjustment.”

The ACC features North Carolina and Notre Dame, which were ranked first and second, respectively, in last week's NCAA Division I poll. In addition, Wake Forest (9th), Clemson (13th) and Maryland (17th) were ranked.

“It's been pretty great that we've been able to experience going through the Big East and now the ACC,” Werth said. “We've had the chance to play some of the top teams in the country in UConn, Notre Dame and now Wake Forest, Maryland, North Carolina and Clemson. It's great to prove ourselves against them.”

Pitt (0-2-2) was looking for its first win after four matches. The Panthers opened ACC play with a 1-0 overtime loss at North Carolina State and suffered a 2-1 home setback to Boston College.

McKenzie, a senior, played in 44 matches before this year. McKenzie, who helped lead Mars to a pair of WPIAL championships, had assists in the past two seasons, but hopes to break through on the scoresheet this year.

“I like to run with the ball and go at people,” he said. “I like setting people up. I've had a little trouble finding the net. Hopefully, I can turn that around.”

Werth, a redshirt junior, made his Pitt debut last season after walking onto the team. He scored a goal against Providence and added a pair of assists in 16 appearances.

“I am happy the coaches here have given me the opportunity to be the best I can,” he said. “I am hoping this year to put a couple in and really contribute to the squad.”

Werth is listed as a forward, but plays more of an outside midfield position.

“It's a balance. Really, I am one of the first players to step to the ball on the defensive side. On the offensive side, I am looking to get in on any crosses and always making diagonal runs and trying to break the defense. It's a lot of running. It's a lot of fun.”

Before McKenzie and Werth joined forces at Pitt, they had crossed paths only a few times during their high school careers.

“It's pretty awesome. We didn't really know each other too well. We played against each other a number of years in club soccer, but in high school, Mars was Double-A and Butler was Triple-A,” Werth said. “It's great two local guys can come and play on the same college team together.”

The two have become good friends and play together on the same summer squads.

“We have probably the best group of guys since I have been here, just based on work ethic and mentality,” Werth said. “The first couple games, everyone was getting to know each other. I think we're really starting to come together.”

Joe Sager is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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