Pitt volleyball starts their season in just two weeks and head coach Dan Fisher is ready for his 11th season at the helm.
The Panthers are coming off their second straight Final Four appearance, losing in five sets to rival Louisville, who they also shared the ACC title with. They finished with a program record 31 wins, including an upset on the road of reigning National Champions Wisconsin in the Elite Eight and four wins in top 10 ranked opponents in BYU and Georgia Tech on the road and Ohio State and Louisville at home.
Pitt loses some great players from last years team including All-Americans in right-side hitter and Iowa grad transfer Courtney Buzzerio and middle blocker Serena Gray. Middle blocker Sabrina Starks and Texas A&M grad transfer in outside hitter Cam Ennis are gone, as well as libero/defensive specialist Ashley Browske, who chose not to use her extra COVID-19 year. Right-side hitter Eliana Posada, who never played in her two seasons with Pitt, chose to transfer as well, making it six players who departed after 2022.
Despite the losses, the Panthers still boast a great squad, with many top performers returning. Graduate middle blocker Chiamaka Nwokolo originally chose to graduate and go into law school, but announced her decision to return in June. Her presence at the position will be important and she’ll serve as a captain again next season, hoping to build on another All-ACC season in 2022.
Sophomore Rachel Jepsen will also look to gain more playing time this season at the middle blocker position, after featuring infrequently as a first-year in 2022.
Junior setter Rachel Fairbanks looks to assert herself this season as one of, if not the best, at her position in the country after earning AVCA All-American Third Team honors in 2022. Graduate setter Lexis Akeo has great experience and is an important player for depth at the position, with little drop off between the two players.
Redshirt senior outside hitter Valeria Vasquez Gomez placed on the AVCA All-American Second Team in 2022 and is an crucial part of Pitt’s attack. She is joined by junior outside hitter Julianna Dalton, who prior to suffering an injury late last season, played in almost every set. Fellow junior outside hitter Cat Flood will once again, play as the serve specialist, but will also look to play more at her position on the floor more often this season.
For the liberos/defensive specialists, junior Emmy Klika looks to take the starting position and sophomore Dillyn Griffin played as the secondary serve specialist, with a vicious south-paw strike of the ball that catches opponents off guard.
The returning players that Fisher has coming back are important for him and the program to achieve that goal of a national title. They bring experience that they’ve gained on the court and he and his staff also have learned how to deal with the moment better going forward.
“I think I’m better at preparing the team,” Fisher said. “I know what to expect more. My staff and I have done it. I also think we have a lot of returners that have been there and some two-three years in a row if you count the Elite Eight. So I think there is a learning curve that comes in learning how to manage the emotions, the media, the way that the flow of the day. So I think we’re better off than we were a couple of years ago.”
There are also many new players that will vie for starting spots and playing time with the returners.
Three players transferred into the program, including graduates in libero/defensive specialist Logan Mosley from Virginia Tech and middle blocker Emma Monks from Michigan State. It also features junior middle blocker Bre Kelley from Florida, who Fisher worked with as head coach of the USA U-21 team at the Pan-Am Cup the past two summers, winning the gold medal twice.
Fisher also brought in the highest rated recruiting class in program history in the Class of 2023. This includes setter Haiti Tautua’a, outside hitters in Blaire Bayless and Torrey Stafford and right-side hitter Olivia Babcock. Babcock and Bayless represented the U.S. at the U-19 Pan-Am Cup and won gold in May.
That experience that those first-years have at the international level is something that Fisher counts towards a great understanding of the game, despite not playing yet at the college level. It’s also a reason he’s declared this team as “the deepest” he has ever coached in his time at Pitt.
“I really am looking forward to…probably the thing I’m most excited about is the competition in our gym,” Fisher said. “This is one of those years I have an idea of how it’s going to go, but I really couldn’t tell you what our starting lineup is going to look like and I think they’re going to have to show it.”
The Pitt volleyball staff saw a long-time coach in Lindsey Behonick leave to become head coach of Oregon State. Fisher chose to promote Kellen Petrone to associate head coach, former player Kamalani Akeo to assistant coach from director of volleyball operations and then Michael Fisher from volunteer assistant to director of volleyball operations. Thanks to the NCAA allowing for three full-time assistants, he added Alicia Roth to his staff from Arkansas State in a similar role.
“I think there is a lot of familiarity,” Fisher said. “It feels like we’re a staff that’s been together a long time…It’s great to have an experienced, professional staff.”
Putting together a great squad also means that you schedule great teams as well, which is exactly what Pitt has in store for them in the upcoming non-conference schedule.
They open the season with BYU in Missoula, Mont. on Friday, Aug. 25 in the Ellesyn Invitational. Pitt then faces Kentucky in a home-and-away double header on Labor Day weekend, with a game at the Petersen Events Center on Sunday, Sept. 3
There are also great matches against Elite Eight finalist Oregon on Thursday, Sept. 14 and an away matchup against Sweet 16 finalist Marquette on the road on Friday, Sept. 8. Pitt also takes on mid-major programs in Loyola Chicago, High Point, UMBC and James Madison who all played in the 2022 NCAA Tournament, making it a tough schedule going forward.
The reasoning for the tough schedule is to challenge the team prior to the NCAA Tournament. It is also to secure enough top wins to earn not just a top 16 seed to host the first weekend, but a top four seed to host through to the Final Four.
There is also two matches against rival Louisville, away on Friday, Oct. 13 and then at the Petersen Events Center on Saturday, Nov. 18, which will likely determine who wins the ACC.
Fisher and the Panthers are ready for a challenging schedule and he says that it will serve the team well as they plan to go out and win the program’s first ever National Title. Still, he really wants to get the best out of his team and for them to give everything they have, regardless of the outcome.
“It’s naive to always think that every year is going to be better,” Fisher said. “So I think the way, we certainly have a team to win a National Championship. Obviously that’s the goal. But really the goal is to feel like we didn’t leave anything on the table. That we’re maximizing the talent we have in this group. It really is how we can have the best practice every day.”