PITTSBURGH — Pitt beat Oregon on Wednesday night in the first meeting between Top 10 volleyball teams in the history of the Fitzgerald Field House.
If you haven’t noticed, the Field House isn’t exactly a spring chicken.
In fact, it’s pretty hard not to notice. Pitt does its best to hide the age, with new wraps on the walls featuring the new panther head logo and a couple of new video boards to replace the Cold War-era ones that had occupied those spaces, but there’s only so much that can be done to make a 68-year-old building not look 68.
On an 85-degree day in September, with a half-capacity crowd, it was somewhere between uncomfortable and stifling in the building and the unvented aroma of frying chicken tenders from the concession stand didn’t do much for the ambience.
It’s safe to say that the team on the court was the draw for the several hundred that filed through the gates on Wednesday night, and that should not be a surprise to anyone.
Since arriving at Pitt in 2013, head coach Dan Fisher has steadily built the Panthers into something of a phenomenon. Pitt has three ACC championships since joining the conference in 2013. Fisher’s group has two of them, taking home the title in each of the last two seasons.
There’s no sign of them slowing down either, as their 3-1 victory over Oregon on Wednesday night showed. To hear Fisher tell it, that wasn’t even Pitt’s best effort.
“We had multiple players not necessarily playing their best, but still staying in it emotionally and finding a way against a good team,” Fisher said Wednesday night. “It’s good to still win when you’re not firing on all cylinders.”
There is no question that the volleyball team is currently the crown jewel of Heather Lyke’s athletic department, and it’s good to see it begin to be treated that way by the fanbase. Wednesday’s game was televised nationally on ESPNU, and there were legion of Pitt fans following along on Twitter in addition to those that braved the elements on campus.
Fisher’s squad is hoping to keep that momentum rolling through what is a very challenging early part of the season schedule. Pitt will play No. 16 Utah in a three-game tournament at Pepperdine this weekend and play a home-and-home series with No. 4 Penn State next weekend.
The home game against the Nittany Lions next Sunday will be played at Petersen Events Center instead of Fitzgerald Field House and with over 1,500 tickets presold the Panthers are hoping to set a new attendance record in that one.
It’s a level of support that is certainly well deserved. But if anything, these Panthers need more than what they’ve gotten. Just down the road, Penn State routinely draws 3-4,000 for non-conference games.
Of course, the Lions have won six national titles in the last 20 years. Pitt has never won an NCAA team title in anything.
But the Panthers appear to be evenly matched on the court with some of the very best in the sport. This year’s NCAA title game will be held in Pittsburgh, just down the road at PPG Paints Arena. There’s a very real chance the Panthers could be there. This is a senior-laden team that has experienced a ton of success over the last two years and seems poised to take the next step.
But in order to maintain that high level of play, Pitt is going to have to keep up with the Joneses. The biggest part of that equation will be a replacement for their out-dated (and over-heated) building.
Lyke wants to make it happen, and a new building for volleyball, wrestling and gymnastics (Pitt’s two other most successful programs) is a centerpiece to her Victory Heights plan for the upper campus athletics facilities.
But that plan was unveiled over 18 months ago, and so far just one piece of it — a third-floor office addition to the Petersen Sports Complex — has been approved.
As usual, fundraising will be the primary factor when it comes to whether or not her vision comes to fruition. Pitt athletics has many needs. The rebuilding basketball program is putting money into the Pete to improve the fan experience and television optics. The football team, as always, is the standard-bearer for the athletic department and draws most of the eyeballs — and donations.
But Pitt has something truly special with its volleyball team. They have an administrator that sees the potential in the program. All that’s missing is for the fanbase and Pitt’s donors to step up.