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Pitt Volleyball MB Chiamaka Nwokolo Prepares to Lead the Way to a National Title



Pitt volleyball middle blocker Chiamaka Nwokolo

If there is one name that comes up when you think of a true leader within a stellar Pitt volleyball squad, graduate middle blocker Chiamaka Nwokolo has to shoot up to the top.

Nwokolo is prepared and ready to lead this Panthers squad to a National Title in her final season with the program. She has served as a captain the past two seasons and will do so once again in 2023. Over her career with the Panthers, Nwokolo has played in over 100 matches and in 340 sets since joining the program in 2019, only second to fellow graduate in setter Lexis Akeo.

Basketball was the first love for Nwokolo prior to just focusing on volleyball. After suffering a serious injury, her mother wanted her to focus on a different sport that had less physical contact and volleyball became that sport going forward.

Nwokolo played for Bishop Hartley High School in Columbus, Ohio where she made 832 kills, 3.4 kills per set, had a .419 hitting percentage and made 233 total blocks, including 104 solo, in three seasons. She also excelled on her club team, Mitonette, helping them win a National Title in the 16 Open Section at the USAV Nationals in 2017.

Despite having a stellar high school and club career, Nwokolo didn’t initially have plans to play volleyball in college. Once she started to see her teammates commit to schools, she began to wonder why she shouldn’t take the same route herself.

When she spoke with her mother about her intentions to play volleyball in college, her mother told her that she had emails from many different programs that wanted her to come and play for them. She then went to a number of schools on visits, but once she came to Pitt, she knew that she would commit soon after and announced her decision to do so in the fall of 2017, as a member of the Class of 2019.

Chiamaka Nwokolo Pitt Volleyball November 23, 2022 David Hague/PSN

In every season as a Panther, Nwokolo has seen her role grow and the amount of sets she plays on the court have also increased each season. She played in 17 matches and 32 sets as a first year, before suffering a hand injury in late October 2018, ending her season.

As a sophomore in the 2020-21 COVID-19 season, she played in all 88 sets and 24 matches for the Panthers, helping them reach their first Elite Eight in program history. She finished with a team-high .411 hitting percentage, third with 77.0 total blocks and fourth with 152 kills, earning her AVCA and All-American Honorable Mentions, as well as an AVCA East Coast All-Region Honorable Mention.

Nwokolo played another large role in propelling Pitt to their first ever Final Four in 2021. She finished second on the team with a .348 hitting percentage, made eight kills in the Elite Eight match against Purdue and then a season-high six total blocks against Nebraska in the Final Four.

She followed up that season with an incredible senior year in 2022, recording career highs with 144 kills, 118 total blocks and finishing with a .374 hitting percentage en route to another trip to the Final Four. Nwokolo had a fantastic match in the win over Wisconsin in the Elite Eight, making 12 kills, three total blocks and finishing with a .458 hitting percentage.

For her efforts, Nwokolo made it onto the All-ACC Second Team for the first time in her career and on the Madison NCAA Tournament All-Region Team, as well as earning AVCA All-East Region honors.

Her past two years saw her build a great relationship with fellow middle blocker Serena Gray. Gray transferred from Penn State ahead of the 2021 season and had an amazing two seasons at Pitt. She earned AVCA First Team All-American honors last season, AVCA All-East Coast Region Team and All-ACC First Team honors both seasons and ab AVCA All-Honorable Mention in 2021.

Nwokolo spoke highly of Gray and said that they both worked together to improve each other’s game and had a great relationship off the court as well.

“She’s just such a great person,” Nwokolo said. “I love that girl so much. Playing with her was very cool, obviously, because over the years, I’m looking at her as like, ‘Wow. She’s really good. That’s somebody I look up to in my position. That’s somebody I want to get to their level.’ For her to come here and be so humble and asking me for advice and asking me about my technique and complimenting me on my stuff. It was just kind of insane having her on the team with me.” 

Chiamaka Nwokolo (20) – November 24, 2021 David Hague/PSN

While she still had a COVID-19 extra year of eligibility, Nwokolo chose to graduate and focus on her law career. She also worked at local personal injury law firm, Edgar Snyder and Associates, for five months this year.

That is why it served to some as a shock when she announced her decision in June to come back to and play, using her final year of eligibility.

Nwokolo spent time over those five months working, thinking about her future and choosing to make the best decision going forward. She saw the need for a middle blocker on the Panthers’ roster, who only had two at the position on the team at the time in Michigan State graduate transfer Emma Monks and sophomore Rachel Jepsen.

She also took time to travel and rest, while considering opportunities that lied within the game of volleyball, especially the professional route. Her consistent communication with her family helped her realize that she could become an outstanding lawyer, while also coming back to the school, the program she loved and the sport that she excels at.

“There were lots of phone calls, prayer,” Nwokolo said. “Just trying to figure out my life because I was very stressed. I was like ‘Okay. I saw my life going this way and I know I’m feeling like it’s going to go another way and I don’t know how to just accept it’ They’re so supportive. I’m very blessed to have such a very supportive family.”

Nwokolo shares many similarities with her youngest brother, Toby, who is finding his way as a basketball player. Standing at 6-foot-6, he plays for Reynoldsburg High School, just outside Columbus and All Ohio Red in the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL).

As a member of the Class of 2025, he already has two Division I offers in MAC schools Eastern Michigan and Ohio and is great at driving through contact to finish at the rim. His impressive leaping ability complimented with flashy dunks are skills similar to Chiamaka’s dominance at the net, as she rises and blocks her opponents on the volleyball court.

“Me and him are very similar,” Nwokolo said about her brother. “Our family always talks about how me and him are very similar with our drives and our passions and obviously, now athletic ability. It’s amazing to see him. I’m so proud of him.” 

Coming back to the Panthers, Nwokolo said that she felt nervous on her return. She hadn’t played seriously in five months and with a new team, including four first years and three transfers, she was concerned that her former teammates and the incomers might not receive her well. Those doubts and fears quickly left once she came back and played with the team, who made sure she knew she belonged with them.

“I don’t know why I was ever scared,” Nwokolo said. “It’s Pitt volleyball. They welcomed me back like I never left and my relationship with them is better than ever. I love the girls.” 

Panthers head coach Dan Fisher is ecstatic to have Nwokolo back for the upcoming season. He loves how great of a communicator she is on the court, her leadership amongst her fellow teammates and of course, the level of play she brings every time she competes.

“We never closed the door,” Fisher said. “We always wanted her back. So, I knew that her first priority was preparing for law school. As the semester went on before the final transfer portal window was about to open, about two weeks before, I reached back out and said, ‘Hey. If you’re thinking about it, let’s meet and talk about it before we give away the last scholarship.’ She has had some time away and we’re grateful to have her back.”

Fisher has played a large part of developing Nwokolo into the excellent, all-around volleyball player that she is today. Unlike most middle blockers who stand at 6-foot-4, 6-foot-5, or taller, Nwokolo stands at around 6-foot-1.

This might serve as a disadvantage for most players her size at her position, but Fisher has instructed Nwokolo in becoming an “all-skills player.” This includes working on her serving, small ball and other facets of being a solid volleyball player outside of the normal strengths of a middle blocker like hitting and blocking.

It also includes working on her mental game, like her communication with her teammates as a captain, and general volleyball knowledge that will help in any scenario on the court.

“I think that the way that I look at the game of volleyball has changed significantly,” Nwokolo said on her work with Fisher and the rest of the coaching staff. “My IQ is a lot higher. The way I look at the game, the way that I play in the game, I feel a lot smarter in how I play.”

Chiamaka Nwokolo Pitt Volleyball November 23, 2022 David Hague/PSN

She has also developed as a leader during her time at Pitt, thanks to her coaches, who have helped her understand what is necessary to become that great captain and it’s much simpler than many think. It’s just by being consistent.

“I think that’s probably the way that I’ve grown the most is coming in every day, being very consistent, no matter what’s going on in my day, Nwokolo said. “Bringing my best self to the gym for my team and the coaches.”

Nwokolo will serve as the main captain next season and as one of the main players on Pitt’s quest for a National Title. She and her teammates have also learned from falling in the Final Four the past four seasons and what is necessary to get to the final match.

Last season’s Final Four loss to Louisville saw a great back-and-forth match end with a 15-2 loss in the fifth set for Pitt. Nwokolo said she “never lost a set that bad in her life” and that there is no better motivation than to take down their rival this season.

“I think that we know what it takes to be in a Championship match,” Nwokolo said. “We’ve been right there for the past two years, so now it’s just going to do it.”

Nwokolo won’t be alone in this title charge, as she will play in one of, if not the best, middle blocker position units in the country.

The addition of Florida transfer Bre Kelley, along with the Big Ten experience of Monks and the exciting potential of Jepsen makes it a tough challenge for any opponent to face this upcoming season.

Along with the best recruiting class in program history, teammates in redshirt senior outside hitter Valeria Vasquez Gomez and junior setter Rachel Fairbanks who join her and Kelley on the Preseason All-ACC team, she is thrilled to take on a tough non-conference slate and rival Louisville in 2023.

“I’m very excited, I’m super excited,” Nwokolo said. “I think that when I look at our team, and just seeing how we match up against anybody, it just makes me smile because I’m just excited to go to war with these girls. No matter what situation that we’re in, I think that we’ll be unstoppable.”

Nwokolo loves spending time outside of the Fitzgerald Field House, the home court of the Panthers, walking around the North Shore and being close to the water and the three rivers that Pittsburgh has to offer. She is considering the professional route after this season and will try to achieve everything she can in the sport before going back into law once she retires.

Before she leaves the program and goes on to achieve great things in her life, on and off the court, Nwokolo hopes that those that come after her show the same love, affection and care that she did all her years with Pitt volleyball.

“To care a lot,” Nwokolo said. “Just to care a lot about this program and our culture. I wouldn’t have come back if I didn’t care a lot. Just like how much we care here is probably what I would like to leave here.”

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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1 month ago

Glad to hear Chia is coming back to solidify the team’s front line.. Welcome back & keep up the outstanding blocking & have a super season!
And PITT’s hoop recruiters need to go after her brother (Toby) & sign him for the 2025 Class!!!

1 month ago

Very nice background story. A joy to read.

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