As players switched benches during the Pitt volleyball team’s annual blue-gold scrimmage Saturday, junior Kylee Levers lagged behind her blue teammates.
She carried crutches and dragged her left leg, which was wrapped heavily and covered in a brace that stretched from her ankle to mid-thigh.
Two days earlier, Levers, a Chartiers-Houston grad, tore her ACL in practice, ending her junior season. In the bigger picture, it meant Pitt would be without its starting setter.
It was a serious blow to a team expected to win its third consecutive ACC title and be a factor in the NCAA Tournament. The Panthers were ranked No. 12 when the American Volleyball Coaches Association released its preseason poll.
But two-time reigning ACC Coach of the Year Dan Fisher isn’t going to wallow in disappointment, nor will he use Levers’ injury as an excuse. The Panthers will proceed as before, except with two less experienced setters.
Redshirt freshman Maddie Soboleski and freshman Lexis Akeo will vie for the job of filling Levers’ role. What they lack in college experience, they make up for in pedigree.
Soboleski is the daughter of 15th-year Edinboro women’s coach Missy Soboleski. With her 6-foot frame and athleticism, Maddie Soboleski “reminds me of Kylee,” said senior outside hitter Stephanie Williams.
Akeo is the younger sister of 2016 ACC Setter of the Year Kamalani Akeo, who graduated in the spring. Lexis Akeo, 17, was ranked among the nation’s top 100 recruits by Prep Volleyball and was Hawaii’s player of the year. Fisher said she is better than her older sister was at the same juncture of her career.
Though Fisher recognizes it will take time for one — or both, depending on what type of offense Fisher decides to run — to get settled, he isn’t worried, especially with a veteran group of hitters that includes preseason All-ACC selections Williams, Kayla Lund, Layne Van Buskirk and Nika Markovic.
“They already are showing so much potential,” said Van Buskirk, who recently competed with Team Canada at the Pan Am Games. “Maddie has improved so much in a year, and Kama’s little sister is just like a little Kama. So we’re not worried.”
Added Williams: “We don’t need a perfect setter. We just need a good one over time, and I think we have that. … I trust them.”
The Panthers are coming off a 30-2 season (17-1 ACC) that saw them advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. They suffered a heartbreaking 3-2 loss to Michigan in the second round in front of a home crowd at Petersen Events Center.
Other topics Fisher addressed after the blue-gold game:
• Redshirt junior outside hitter Zoi Faki filled in for an injured Lund in the NCAA match against Michigan and had a solid performance with 12 kills (.212 hitting percentage) and 23 digs. The Panthers are deep at the left antenna with Lund and Williams, but Faki donned a libero jersey for one set of the blue-gold match.
Asked if the native of Greece could see an increased role this season, Fisher said, “The best way I can answer that is … the player Zoi is now versus a year ago is not even close. She’s ready at any moment to come in and help the team win. She gives us options on the left and the right side and at libero.”
• Redshirt senior Hali Hillegas, who played at Iowa State before coming to Pitt, is a leading candidate to plug the hole at libero left by the graduation of Angela Seman (Seneca Valley). Fisher said she got off to a slow start but has been progressing.
“She stayed all summer and worked really hard. She has been killing it,” he said. “She is really powerful and has made some technical improvements.”
• The Panthers brought in three top-100 recruits with this year’s freshman class: Akeo, middle/right-side hitter Chiamaka Nwokolo and middle hitter Anastasia Russ (Hampton).
Russ, at 6-foot-5 with a lengthy wingspan, is a daunting presence at the net. But her presence might have to wait a year. She is a candidate to redshirt, Fisher said.
The Panthers are deep at middle hitter with senior Van Buskirk and sophomores Chi Ndee and Sabrina Starks, so Fisher has the luxury of allowing Russ to develop for a year as a redshirt if he chooses.
“She’s going to get more powerful the longer she’s here,” he said about Russ. “It’s just nice to have someone who hits from that high of a point in your gym, so when we go against it, it’s not something we haven’t seen.
“We’re really excited for her now, but even more for the future.”