Pitt, Duquesne, RMU harbor hopes of securing bid to NCAA volleyball tournament
It could be December Madness for the city's three Division I women's volleyball teams.
Pitt, Duquesne and Robert Morris are among the top teams in their conferences as the postseason approaches, and all have a shot to reach the NCAA Tournament.
“I think there's definitely a sense of urgency with my class,” Pitt senior captain Jessica Wynn said. “As a group, we all really want it this season because we know how good we are and how good we can be.”
The Panthers (19-4, 7-3) are in sixth place in the ACC, a half-game out of fourth. Although a four-set loss to Virginia Tech on Friday damaged Pitt's at-large NCAA hopes, the Panthers can enhance their resume with a victory Saturday at No. 25 Duke. There is no ACC Tournament in volleyball, so Pitt has eight matches left to impress the selection committee.
Pitt coach Dan Fisher, whose team is No. 52 in the latest RPI, said he expects five or six ACC squads to make the 64-team NCAA field. The Panthers have shown they can play with the nation's best, losing in five sets to current No. 3 Florida State and No. 8 North Carolina.
“It definitely validated us as a team,” Wynn said of the Florida State match. “I don't think it was any surprise that we hung with them and gave them such a hard time, but it definitely shows that's the level that we're at and that we can easily snag a win like that in the future.”
Wynn is one of five seniors on the roster, a group that also includes the program's all-time aces leader, Lindsey Zitzke, as well as Delaney Clesen, who spent the offseason playing for the U.S. Collegiate National Team.
“We have a group of girls that has committed themselves to getting better,” said Fisher, who is trying to lead Pitt to its first NCAA Tournament since 2004.
Duquesne (15-9, 8-3 Atlantic 10) is focused on repeating its success from last year, when it reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time. The Dukes are on an eight-match winning streak, which ties the program record, and are in second place in the conference with three matches to go. The top six finishers advance to the A-10 Tournament on Nov. 21-23.
The Dukes feature a balanced offense led by middle hitters Arielle Love and Lacey Levers (Chartiers-Houston). The centerpiece is Love, a two-time, first-team All-A-10 selection who is pushing for conference player of the year honors this season. Love ranks first in the A-10 in hitting percentage, fourth in blocks per set and sixth in kills per set.
“She's ready to put the team on her back,” Duquesne coach Steve Opperman said. “When she gets a kill or terminates on a ball, the rest of the team goes crazy.”
Robert Morris (12-15) has had a season of extremes. The Colonials began the year 1-13 but have gone 10-1 in the Northeast Conference and clinched a spot in the league tournament Nov. 22-23.
“We were able to hit the reset button,” Robert Morris coach Dale Starr said. “We sat down and talked about it. Look, the only way we're getting to the NCAA Tournament is to win the conference tournament anyway. We pretty much forgot about that 1-13.”
The Colonials feature a veteran squad led by senior Becky Jay and junior Kristin Thompson. Sophomores Arden Fisher (Riverview) and April Krivoniak (Latrobe) also are key contributors.
Robert Morris is looking to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since a five-year run from 1999-2003.
“That's our ultimate goal, and that's what (the seniors) came here for,” said Starr, who is in his fifth season. “That was my first real recruiting class, and they've been working their tails off for four years, and they want to see it pay off with (an NEC) championship.”