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Pitt volleyball leans on young players, Penn State on seniors to reach NCAA Tournament

| Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017, 4:18 p.m.
Pitt sophomores Nika Markovic (center) and Stephanie Williams (left) earned All-ACC first-team honors. It was Williams' second first-team honor.
Pitt Athletics
Pitt sophomores Nika Markovic (center) and Stephanie Williams (left) earned All-ACC first-team honors. It was Williams' second first-team honor.
Penn State senior middle hitter Haleigh Washington earned first-team All-Ameican status last season and was named 2017 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
Penn State Athletics
Penn State senior middle hitter Haleigh Washington earned first-team All-Ameican status last season and was named 2017 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
Dan Fisher, in his fifth season as Pitt's women's volleyball coach, has led the Panthers to two consecutive NCAA Tournament berths and a share of the 2017 ACC title. He was named 2017 ACC Coach of the Year.
Pitt Athletics
Dan Fisher, in his fifth season as Pitt's women's volleyball coach, has led the Panthers to two consecutive NCAA Tournament berths and a share of the 2017 ACC title. He was named 2017 ACC Coach of the Year.
Penn State senior Ali Frantti was the national freshman of the year in 2014, when the Nittany Lions women's volleyball team won its seventh national title.
Penn State senior Ali Frantti was the national freshman of the year in 2014, when the Nittany Lions women's volleyball team won its seventh national title.
Pitt outside hitter Kayla Lund earned four ACC Freshman of the Week honors this season.
Pitt Athletics
Pitt outside hitter Kayla Lund earned four ACC Freshman of the Week honors this season.
Penn State senior Simone Lee was a first-team All-American last season and was named 2017 Big Ten Player of the Year.
Penn State Athletics
Penn State senior Simone Lee was a first-team All-American last season and was named 2017 Big Ten Player of the Year.

When “Pittsburgh” appeared during ESPNU's broadcast of the NCAA volleyball selection show Sunday, Panthers players exchanged customary hugs and high-fives. Compared to 2016, when Pitt made the tournament for the first time in 12 years, the celebration was subdued.

The day before the brackets were revealed, the Panthers clinched a share of the program's first — and the school's second (wrestling, 2014) — ACC title. They had 25 wins, an RPI of 27 and received votes in the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll.

Where there was uncertainty a season ago, a berth in the tournament was practically a given this time around.

“It probably wasn't as exciting as last year, but in a good way,” said fifth-year coach Dan Fisher, who was named ACC Coach of the Year on Monday. “It's kind of the natural progression of a program that's getting better.”

Halfway across the state, top-ranked Penn State was learning it got the tournament's No. 1 overall seed. Coach Russ Rose has built a program that is the epitome of “been there, done that” when it comes to success — seven national championships — but the Nittany Lions' reaction was animated nonetheless.

“We were very excited. We worked very hard for it,” senior middle hitter Haleigh Washington said. “We wanted to be in that good spot.”

Pitt and Penn State begin NCAA play Friday in State College. Pitt (25-6) faces Atlantic 10 champion VCU (30-2), and the Nittany Lions (29-1) open with MEAC winner Howard (16-15).

The rival schools could play each other in the second round — as they did last season, with Penn State winning 3-1 — and it would be a battle of contrasting teams. Pitt's run was fueled by freshmen and sophomores, while a group of seniors formed the backbone for Penn State.

Pitt made the 2016 NCAA Tournament thanks in large part to the efforts of then-freshmen Stephanie Williams, Layne Van Buskirk and Nika Markovic. Williams led the team in kills and was an All-ACC first-teamer, and Van Buskirk and Markovic were all-freshman selections.

This season, Fisher added hitters Kayla Lund and Chi Ndee. Both won multiple ACC Freshman of the Week honors and made the conference all-freshman team.

“They completely blended into our gym culture,” said junior setter Kamalani Akeo, an ACC first-teamer. “They're both really hard workers, which is what we really value on our team.”

Similarly, the team grew quickly in a short time. Even Fisher is surprised.

“When I first signed a contract here, the goal was, in the first five years, to get to the tournament,” he said. “The speed of how fast we made it, and certainly to be at this point — making it two years in a row with a really young team — is really good.”

While Pitt continues to climb the ladder, Penn State wants to reclaim the top rung. Seven current players were on the roster three seasons ago when the Nittany Lions won their most recent national title: seniors Washington, Ali Frantti, Simone Lee, Lainy Pierce and Heidi Thelen and redshirt juniors Nia Reed and Bryanna Weiskircher.

Lee, Frantti and Washington have been major contributors throughout their tenure, with each amassing more than career 1,000 kills. Washington said this team mirrors the 2014 team in terms of experience and leadership.

“I think that when we won our freshman year, there were a lot of seniors that stepped up and made big plays at big points,” she said. “This team has the same thing.”

Washington and her classmates have a chance to bookend their careers with national titles. And if they have to go through Pitt to do it, it's a challenge both teams embrace.

“We love playing Pitt,” Washington said, noting the teams sometimes practice together in the offseason. “They're a very good team and a very athletic team. They do what they do very well.”

Said Fisher: “This is the best defensive team that I've ever coached. In women's volleyball, when you play really good defense, you can be in there with anyone. And we have good (hitters). I'm not trying to get too far ahead of myself, but I think we can make a good run.”

Chuck Curti is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at ccurti@tribweb.com or via Twitter @CCurti_Trib.

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