No. 9 Pitt volleyball prepares to embark on ACC title defense
Pitt volleyball coach Dan Fisher can point to a number of indicators that reflect the growth of his program. There are the NCAA Tournament appearances in 2016 and ’17, last season’s ACC title — the team’s first — and, most recently, a top-10 ranking in the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll.
When the Panthers moved to No. 9 on Monday, it marked their highest ranking and was the first time since the 2011-12 season that any Pitt program was ranked in the top 10 nationally. (Wrestling and men’s basketball achieved the feat that season.)
But perhaps the most compelling evidence of the team’s arrival is this:
“Everywhere I go in Pittsburgh, it seems like sports fans … they might not know anything about volleyball, but they know we have a good team,” said Fisher, in his sixth season and fresh off signing a contract extension that will keep him in Pitt script until at least 2022. “If I meet someone, they’ll say, ‘Oh, you’re the coach. You guys are doing great.’
“Anytime I talk to a ‘regular’ sports fan in the area, they seem to know volleyball is doing a good job.”
The Panthers (9-0) will try to keep their profile trending upward when they begin defense of their ACC title next week. Pitt returned every starter from last season and graduated only two players who were part of the regular rotation.
Because of that — in another program first — Pitt was picked No. 1 in the preseason ACC coaches poll.
The ranking. The expectations. The role reversal from hunter to hunted. All of it is uncharted territory for Pitt, but fifth-year senior libero Angela Seman (Seneca Valley) doesn’t believe the Panthers will be overwhelmed.
“I think we have a level-headedness in the gym because we know we can still play better,” she said. “I think we’re still not content with how we’re playing, so we’re going to keep pushing because we know we have another level.”
The Panthers would seem to have it all coming together. They have, Fisher said, become a better blocking team, ranking third in the ACC. They have out-dug all their opponents and given up the fewest service aces in the conference.
Pitt’s greatest strength, however, is its deep corps of hitters. Behind juniors Nika Markovic, Stephanie Williams and Layne Van Buskirk and sophomores Chi Ndee and Kayla Lund, the Panthers lead the nation in hitting percentage (.317).
“Our hitters are unbelievable,” said senior setter Kamalani Akeo, an All-ACC first-teamer last fall. “It’s really easy to trust each person on the court. I just have to put up a hittable ball. In past years, we’ve had a lot of good hitters, but this is the highest level of hitters that we’ve had.”
Fisher also likes the development of his team’s depth. Freshman Sabrina Starks and junior Zoi Faki bring additional hitting to the lineup, and redshirt sophomore Kylee Levers (Chartiers-Houston) has emerged as a second option at setter.
Levers essentially has split time 50-50 with Akeo in the early going, and her height (6-feet) gives the Panthers another physical presence at the net.
“She developed a lot in the spring,” Akeo said. “Her getting better, I knew that would put us in a better position to win games and win championships.”
Added Fisher: “I feel good about this team beating opponents with multiple lineups. I don’t think we need to be locked in to think we can only win with one lineup.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge for the Panthers will be absorbing every opponent’s best shot. Smaller programs like Kennesaw State and Dayton put scares into Pitt during the recent invitational at the Field House. That comes with the territory of being a conference champion and a Tournament team, but it is a challenge, Seman said, her team is ready to meet.
“We know all these teams want to beat us and want to beat us bad,” she said. “We just have to be ‘Pitt good’ because ‘Pitt good’ can win a lot of games.”
And win over more fans. Fisher used to look in the stands and see only parents. Now the Field House pulsates with a “volleyball crowd.” He used to enjoy anonymity, but that, too, is giving way to more recognition for the reigning ACC Coach of the Year.
Having a top-10 program likely will generate more excitement. Though Fisher concedes it is premature for such a lofty ranking, he gladly will take the fringe benefits.
“I don’t think we’re a top-10 team yet,” he said. Then he cracked a sly smile and added, “I told the girls I will let them know when I think they’re a top-10 team. But it’s nice to get the buzz for the program.”
Chuck Curti is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chuck at email@example.com or via Twitter @CCurti_Trib.