It’s every Division I athlete’s goal to win a championship, and that’s no different for the 31 men of the Pitt Panthers baseball team.
But for some of Pitt’s players, this season has had a different goal: leave the program in a better place than they found it.
In the first regard, the Panthers advanced their cause on Tuesday, with a 2-1 victory over Georgia Tech in the ACC Tournament. Pitt will play No. 1 seed North Carolina on Wednesday, with a berth in the semifinals on the line.
But for redshirt seniors Frank Maldonado, Caleb Parry and Matt Pidich, the 2018 season has been as much about the future as it has been the present.
Those three players were on the roster when Pitt made its ACC baseball debut in 2014. Maybe more than any program in Pitt’s athletic department, baseball’s world was turned upside down with the move from the Big East to the ACC.
In 2013, Pitt was 18-6 in conference play, were the No. 3 seed in the conference tournament and were upset by No. 7 Notre Dame in 10 innings in the semifinals. That was the last postseason game the Panthers played before Tuesday.
In 2014, Pitt finished 11-19 in conference play, and out of the 10-team ACC Tournament. In 2015, they were 9-21. In 2016, they were 10-18. A year ago, they bottomed out at 5-16.
The Panthers aren’t satisfied with just being one of the Top 12 teams in the 14-team conference, but after four years of failing to get there, making the ACC Tournament feels like a big step forward for the program.
“It outweighs all personal accomplishments for me,” centerfielder Frank Maldonado said. “A huge goal for all of us coming, especially in this year, was to do something as a team that hasn’t been done here. … We’ll always be able to say that we were the first team to take this step. It’s a great feeling.”
Of course, there have been plenty of personal accomplishments for Pitt’s seniors, too. Maldonado leads the club with a .302 batting average. Pidich leads the team in ERA (2.84) and strikeouts (107). Pidich started on short rest Tuesday and gave Pitt seven innings of one-run ball to win the team’s first ACC Tournament game.
“I came to Pitt looking to have a part in changing the program,” Pidich said. “This year was the last year I can leave my mark here and have a legacy.”
The Panthers have a chance to do just that on Wednesday, when an upset of the top-ranked Tar Heels would vault the Panthers into the ACC Semifinals. In the bigger picture, though, just getting to this stage will be a boon for the program.
“I just want them to experience it,” skipper Joe Jordano said. “Even for the future, they can say ‘This is what it’s like.’”
Pitt will return ACC all-freshman DH Ron Washington, Jr. along with Chris Cappas, who hit drove in the go-ahead run on Tuesday. Sophomores Alex Amos and Nico Popa will return after missing time with injuries along with Wednesday’s scheduled starter Dan Hammer and reliever R.J. Freure. There are also a bunch of draft eligible Panthers that may return.
“I’m a firm believer that once you get somewhere once, at that point, it becomes an expectation,” Maldonado said. “Once getting to the conference tournament is the norm, then competing to win the conference tournament will become the norm.”
Of course, the Panthers aren’t done yet, and as much as this group has done to advance the program this far, an opportunity remains to do even more against North Carolina.
“We have a tight bond, this team,” Pidich said. “Everyone is in it for the right reasons. We’re all here to win and we know that this could be the team that could change the program.”