It had been nearly two years since the last time fans packed the bleachers at Ambrose Urbanic Field. Prior to the 2021 season, Pitt athletics announced that after a COVID-19-induced hiatus, spectators would be once again allowed to watch a live sporting event on Pitt’s upper campus.
As the gates opened on August 26, the capacity crowd scrambled for standing room on the concourse railing — a refreshing contrast from what had been an exhausting year for everyone.
Ever since its inception, fans have been an integral part of what makes college sports so special. Between tailgates, student sections and age-old traditions, the army of people wearing the colors of their beloved institution created an environment that is distinct to college athletics.
But just like many other aspects of daily life, college athletes and fans alike were stripped from the palpable energy found at games across the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After more than a year of vacant bleachers and seasons riddled with uncertainty, fans finally returned to support Pitt Athletics in dramatic fashion with a doubleheader featuring the men’s and women’s soccer teams at Ambrose Urbanic Field.
Fans and players were ecstatic to see hundreds of spectators filter into the Petersen Sports Complex on the brisk Thursday evening. But the road toward the first true home game was not a straight one for any of those involved — especially the players.
There was no shortage of moving pieces in sophomore midfielder Chloe Minas’ first year with Pitt women’s soccer. The Montreal native left high school early and enrolled at Pitt in the spring 2020 semester. But she was forced to return to Canada less than two months after arriving in Pittsburgh due to the pandemic. When her local fields and other public areas began to shut down, finding a place to merely practice was an uphill battle at times.
“The parks were closed, everything was shut down,” Minas said. “We were practically on lockdown … I had to go to playgrounds to find places where I could pass a ball.”
When Minas returned to campus for her first season at Pitt in fall 2020, Minas adjusted on the fly. There was little to no consistency when it came to a schedule — the uncertainty of the pandemic made planning ahead a near-impossible task.
“It was a rollercoaster because one week they told us we were practicing and then the next we would have to quarantine,” Minas said. “It was really on and off.”
The 2020 season began last September, but both the men’s and women’s teams played abbreviated seasons. In a campaign full of change-ups, a midseason hiatus may have been the most dramatic.
About a year later, both squads finally got their opportunity to showcase two years’ worth of progress to their fans. For Minas, her journey from practicing on local playgrounds during the height of the pandemic to playing in front of a packed crowd reminded her and her teammates of those in their corner.
“When there were no fans, it felt like a practice,” Minas said. “At our home opener, when it was packed, it really helped us. It showed us that there were people who actually wanted to support us. It feels more real.”
Both the men’s and women’s teams gave those people something to cheer about, winning 7-0 and 5-0, respectively.
Not only did the players and fans enjoy the revamped atmosphere at Ambrose, but staff members working behind-the-scenes also embraced the return of fans. While players and coaches see more of the spotlight on both college and professional teams, managers, photographers and other staff members were fixtures at team events during last year’s volatile conditions.
From the sidelines of both games stood photographer Matt Hawley — a familiar face around the Pitt Athletics scene. Hawley is entering his fifth year with Pitt as a photographer and was one of the few people allowed to step inside the empty venues last season.
“There’s definitely a noticeable difference,” Hawley said. “You can definitely tell the fans give [the players] a little extra boost.”
Hawley experienced firsthand what everyone else saw on TV last year — eerily quiet venues with no sound besides the chatter amongst players and coaches, as well as some artificial crowd noise. The latter, he remarked, was one of the stranger elements of the already abnormal experience.
“Last year with the fake crowd noise, it was just awkward,” Hawley said. “There’s just no other way to describe it … I was looking at a game happening but it didn’t feel real.”
Much like the players, Hawley also felt rejuvenated at the return of more than a thousand people to Ambrose Urbanic Field last week for the doubleheader. Not only was the static crowd noise replaced by hundreds of students and other supporters, but there was a discernible energy to the event.
“I think fans are a huge part of the gameday atmosphere and, for me, it gives me things to take pictures of,” Hawley said. “Fans are engaging with players … you can just feel the energy … It’s definitely more enjoyable.”
Unlike Minas and Hawley, many Pitt students experienced their first glimpse of live Pitt sports in more than a year, including sophomore Gavin Hetz.
“We tried to [stream games online last year],” Hetz said. “It was hard because we were in the dorms, but we tried to watch as many as we could … But we didn’t get to go in person.”
Partially due to their recent successes, soccer has become a hot ticket around campus. Hetz, a native of Meyersdale, Pennsylvania, said soccer is somewhat of an afterthought where he comes from. So the excitement about the sport in Oakland is brand new for him.
“Yeah, it was cool because I had never gone to a soccer game like that before,” Hetz said. “Where I’m from, soccer is not that big of a deal, so it was cool to see everybody go out to watch a game.”
For the students lining the bleachers of Ambrose that night, the pandemic is still present in their day-to-day lives. Masks are still a fixture and people are gradually returning to pre-pandemic life. But after a tumultuous year of isolation and unpredictability, the roar of students and other spectators made the Petersen Sports Complex a place of relief and celebration for the Pitt community.
“We were trying to gauge if people were actually going to show up,” Minas said. “And when they did, it was kind of exciting.”
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