Pitt volleyball has been one of the best teams in the country the past few years and this season has shown much of the same with the great talent they possess and solid performances they have shown so far.
The Panthers are 9-2 and at No. 8 in the country with the completion of their non-conference schedule. Their only losses on the season come against then ranked No. 17 BYU in the season opener in Montana and then ranked No. 7 Oregon last Thursday in five sets at Fitzgerald Field House.
They won a home-and-away with then ranked No. 15 Kentucky, with a sweep in Lexington and then a victory in four sets at the Petersen Events Center in the home opener. They also swept then ranked No. 24 Marquette on the road and outside of dropping one set to Kentucky at home, Pitt has swept the other teams they played against in their non-conference slate.
What Does the Non-Conference Mean for Pitt Volleyball and the NCAA Tournament?
The non-conference is the most important time of the regular season for Pitt volleyball, in terms of building their resume for the NCAA Tournament. The goal for head coach Dan Fisher and his players is to win as many games as possible, defeat top teams, while also racking up wins against mid-majors that will serve as important wins for RPI (Rating Percentage Index).
Doing this will allow the Panthers to compete with teams in the other Power 5 conferences. The ACC is one of the weakest of the top conferences for volleyball, which means that the Panthers have to win almost all of their games for the NCAA Tournament committee to consider them as a No. 1 seed.
Earning a No. 1 seed in the postseason guarantees that a team hosts through the First Round to the Elite Eight. Pitt did so in 2021, but last year, finished with a No. 2 seed overall and had to go to reigning National Champions Wisconsin to pull out a legendary win in five sets in the Elite Eight.
The losses to BYU and Oregon, while not terrible, don’t help the fact that Pitt likely needs to win every single ACC game to earn that No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Pitt lost to then ranked No. 25 San Diego in the season opener and Towson in non-conference last season and despite losing just one game in the ACC to Louisville, they settled for that No. 2 spot.
What Does ACC Play Hold for Pitt Volleyball?
Along with Pitt, there are only two other teams in the ACC in No. 5 Louisville and No. 13 Georgia Tech that consistently feature in the AVCA poll. Pitt finished 3-1 in the regular season against the two teams, beating Georgia Tech twice and winning at home against Louisville, to earn a share of the 2022 ACC Title for the first time since 2019. Louisville won the series 2-1 in 2022, taking the Final Four matchup on Omaha, Neb. in five sets.
Pitt will face Georgia Tech first at home on Friday, Oct. 6 and then travel the next Friday, Oct. 13 to face Louisville. They will face the same two opponents in back-to-back weekends in November, traveling to Atlanta on Friday, Nov. 10 for a 5:00 p.m. tip-off on the ACC Network and then face Louisville at the Petersen Events Center on Saturday, Nov. 18 at 1 p.m.
Louisville is 9-1 this season, with wins against ranked opponents in Washington State, rival Kentucky and Penn State, and their only loss came against No. 4 Stanford on Sunday. Georgia Tech is 10-1 and holds back-to-back wins against then ranked No. 12 Ohio State in Columbus and another win against Penn State. Their only loss came against rival Georgia at McCamish Pavilion, their home basketball court.
The best team Pitt faces outside of the those two is likely Duke, who was the only other ACC team to receive votes in the recent AVCA poll. Duke is 9-2 and on a nine-game winning streak. After losing to then ranked No. 16 Purdue on the road and Loyola (Chicago), they have wins on the road over Michigan and Michigan State and a win over then ranked No. 18 Creighton in four sets.
That matchup for the Panthers against the Blue Devils comes in Durham, N.C. on Friday, so an early test to see if the rest of the ACC can put up a fight.
Pitt will also take on Syracuse and Miami in a home-and-away, while hosting Boston College, Clemson, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest, in addition to traveling to North Carolina, Notre Dame, NC State and Florida State for their ACC schedule.
The Panthers haven’t lost to an ACC team outside of Louisville or Georgia Tech since Notre Dame in October 2020. They are likely to win all those matches again, but with every new year brings in new teams that want to defeat the best in conference.
The Four Star First-Years
Pitt brought in their highest rated recruiting class in 2023 and it has clearly shown so far this season.
Right-side hitter Olivia Babcock and outside hitter Torrey Stafford are the only two Panthers to start every match. They are first and second in kills for the Panthers, respectively, with Babcock at 110, 2.97 kills per set, and Stafford at 102, 2.83.
The duo is also both tied for second place on Pitt with eight service aces each, with Babcock’s signature powerful serve a delight for fans to watch. Babcock, who stands at 6-foot-5, is second on Pitt with 40.0 total blocks and Stafford, who stands at 6-foot-2, is fourth with 29.0 total blocks.
Setter Haiti Tautua’a, who Fisher has described as “probably the most physically talented setter we’ve ever had,” has also made her mark in 2023. She has started the last three games at the position, leading Pitt in assists and is strong defensively, averaging 4.6 digs per match over that time period.
Outside hitter Blaire Bayless is also competing for time as a right-side hitter, along with junior outside hitter Julianna Dalton.
Injuries Playing a Role
Florida transfer and junior middle blocker Bre Kelley started the first four games of the season before suffering an injury in the away match against Kentucky on Sept. 1. She has missed the past seven matches and has been on the bench in a boot and using crutches to move around.
It is unknown if she comes back this season, but she is an incredible talent and a benefit for Pitt whenever she is on the court.
Fellow middle blocker in Chiamaka Nwokolo came back for her final season at Pitt but has only made six appearances so far. She’s done well when she’s played, but it will be interesting to see how much she plays during the conference schedule.
Junior setter Rachel Fairbanks, who has continued to excel at her position and right-side hitter in 2023, has missed the past three matches after starting the previous eight matches and playing every set.
Tautua’a has done well in her place, and graduate Lexis Akeo has seen more time too, but Pitt will need her back full-time if they are to reach their goal of a National Title. She did participate in warmups against UMBC on Wednesday, so it seems that this is more of Fisher choosing to give her time off and recover from a tweak or minor injury she does have, rather than something long-term.
Dalton, who played sparingly in the 2022 NCAA Tournament, has only missed three matches this season. After starting 30 of the 34 matches in 2022, it looks like she’ll be competing with Bayless for playing time behind Babcock as a right-side hitter.
Stars of the Season So Far
Michigan State graduate transfer Emma Monks has stepped up at middle blocker and then some. She leads Pitt with 45.0 total blocks, including six solo blocks, is No. 1 in the ACC and No. 6 in the country with 1.55 blocks per set and is No. 7 in the ACC with a .436 hitting percentage.
Redshirt senior outside hitter Valeria Vasquez Gomez has shown her versatility across the court for the Panthers. She is third on the team with 75 kills, 2.14 per set, second with 62 digs, 1.77 per set, and leads the Panthers with 16 service aces. Her 0.46 service aces per set is No. 10 in the ACC.
Junior libero/defensive specialist Emmy Klika is improved in her first season starting full-time for Pitt volleyball. She leads the team with 135 digs, 3.86 per set, which is No. 9 in the ACC. She is also a great passer, but her defensive prowess has allowed Pitt to come back for points and build runs.
Sophomore middle blocker Rachel Jepsen has made the most of her appearances so far this season, with injuries at her position. She has started six matches, is fourth on the Panthers with 30.0 total blocks, has 29 kills and is hitting .392. Her 1.43 blocks per set is No. 3 in the ACC.
Senior outside hitter Cat Flood continues to assume her role as the serve specialist on for Pitt volleyball and sophomore libero/defensive specialist Dillyn Griffin playing secondary in that role. Griffin possesses a great left-handed serve that proves vital in getting an opponent to play out of system.
Pitt volleyball has the makings of a Final Four team this season once again. Those matchups against Georgia Tech and Louisville are vital for seeding in the NCAA Tournament, so if you’re planning to make it out to at least one or two matches this season at home, both of those would be the best matches to watch.