PITTSBURGH — No. 7 Pitt volleyball found itself in a position it didn’t want to coming into their match against No. 4 Louisville at the Petersen Events Center Saturday afternoon — down two sets to none.
This was nothing new for this team, who have found themselves down in the same situation four times prior this season alone. They had made three reverse sweep attempts prior, two that failed late in the fifth set against both then ranked No. 7 Oregon on Sept. 14 at Fitzgerald Field House and Florida State on the road on Nov. 3 and one that succeeded against then ranked No. 11 Georgia Tech at Fitzgerald Field House on Oct. 6. They also fell behind two sets to then ranked No. 6 Louisville on Oct. 13, but would lose in a sweep on the road.
The first set saw the Panthers keep it close initially, but the Cardinals would use a 6-1 run to build a 17-13 lead and eventually win the set comfortably, 25-19.
Pitt looked as if they had the second set to themselves to level the match up at one set each, with leads of 7-2, 15-11 and 24-21 for set point. Louisville would score five straight consecutive points, thanks to excellent play from senior outside hitter Anna DeBeer, who made two kills to tie the set at 24, and then helped her team win the set, 26-24.
Dan Fisher, the Pitt volleyball head coach, said that his team “folded” at the end of the second set. They played timid, made errors with their hitting and ended up in the dreaded 2-0 hole.
Despite this, Fisher didn’t need a cinematic speech to will his team to victory. He has seen it all season long, either with them battling back down sets or even within sets. All his players needed to do was play the brand of volleyball they know best and stick to the plan.
“Mostly we just hung with it,” Fisher said after that second set. “No great motivational speeches.”
The Panthers responded after trading leads with the Cardinals to win the third set late 26-24. They had to do much of the same in the fourth set, falling behind, but staying in the match and eventually taking advantage of service errors from the Cardinals to take the fourth set, 25-21.
Pitt stepped up defensively later in the match, particularly in that fourth set, making five of their total eight blocks. Graduate student middle blocker Emma Monks made two crucial blocks late in that set, including a solo block to win it.
Louisville looked like they might win the fifth set and prevent Pitt from making the comeback, as they started on an 8-4 run. Pitt, once again, had to battle back, tying it at 10 on a 6-2 run, with three kills from first-year right side hitter Olivia Babcock, including two back-to-back to level it all up.
Both teams would continue to trade points, and the Panthers had set point at 15-14 after an attack error from DeBeer, but Cardinals graduate opposite side hitter Aiko Jones kept it tied at 15. The Panthers would win the fifth set and complete the reverse sweep with two more attack errors from junior outside hitter Charitie Luper and DeBeer to finish it off.
No. 7 #Pitt Volleyball reverse sweeps No. 4 Louisville in front of a record crowd at the Petersen Events Center
— Dominic Campbell (@DOMISMONEY) November 18, 2023
The reverse sweep is the second this season for the Panthers, along with the win over the Yellow Jackets in October. This is also just the third ever reverse sweep under Fisher in his 11 seasons as head coach, with the first against the Boston College Eagles back in his first season in 2013.
Fisher loved the fight and comeback from his players, but would much rather not have to reverse sweep, if at all possible.
“Well maybe I got to look at how I’m coaching the team that we’re always down 0-2,” Fisher said. “I don’t think much about the reverse. In fact, probably, I’m on all them all the time to win the first set because I’d rather start up. Hopefully we’ll learn from it and not do it again, unless we have to.”
The first-year duo of Babcock and outside hitter Torrey Stafford played a large role in Pitt volleyball getting the reverse sweep.
Babcock led Pitt with 23 kills, tied junior libero/defensive specialist Emmy Klika with for second most digs with 12, while also making two blocks. Stafford herself led Pitt with a .453 hitting percentage, while also finishing second with 21 kills and three total blocks. The kills and digs for both players are their career-highs in the category, demonstrating their importance to the team and growth in their first season with the program.
Junior setter Rachel Fairbanks also had a brilliant match, setting a career high with 58 assists and 19 digs, both leading the Panthers in the victory. She gave credit to her fellow hitters for their performances all match long to
“Setting a career-high in assists is really all due to the hitters,” Fairbanks said. “The hitters went off today. Valeria, Torrey especially. But yeah, I was just playing for my teammates. I feel like that’s when everything starts flowing when we’re playing for each other.”
Redshirt senior outside hitter Valeria Vazquez Gomez came up in big moments herself late in the match. She finished with 15 kills, her season-high, and 10 digs as well, dominating at the net with her swings and excelling in the back row with her passing and defense.
Pitt volleyball set a record with 8,856 fans in attendance, with fans filling the lower bowl and spilling into the upper bowl at the Petersen Events Center. This broke the previous record of 5,195 fans that came to see Pitt host Penn State in September 2019, which ended in a close five set loss to their in-state rival.
The team spent a great deal of time this week promoting the match and received help from other programs, particularly men’s basketball.
“Just want to thank the City of Pittsburgh for showing up today and for us to get close to nine thousand without students really means a lot…” Fisher said.
“When I first walk out, I take a moment to appreciate our fans and the environment and then once warmups start, you just got to lock in and worry about your side of the net…Definitely grateful [for the fans],” Fairbanks added.
The rivalry between the two teams continues to grow and played a large role in the amount of fans coming to the match. Both teams have won the past two matchups at home and Louisville won in the Final Four last season, putting every match these teams face in the national spotlight.
Stafford has played in numerous big matches in her career and relishes the opportunity. She has enjoyed the rivalry in her first season and was happy to give the home fans something go home happy about.
“Really strong, the rivalry’s strong and I’m excited that we defended our home court,” Stafford said. “So next year we’re going to take it there and take it here.”
Going forward, Pitt has a good shot at potentially securing a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. This would allow them to host up to the Final Four, which they did in 2021 and made their first ever appearance. Fisher is more focused on facing a good Miami team on Wednesday in the home regular season finale and less on worrying about finishing in the top four.
“…It gives us an argument,” Fisher said. “With Wisconsin losing recently, I think we’ll be in the conversation. I don’t know how those will go and frankly, I’m not that concerned about top four. I’m concerned about getting a good draw of what our road is to the Final Four, but only to a point because last year BYU, then Florida, then Wisconsin and we still found a way to do it. No matter what our road is, it’s going to be tough. You’re going to play a really good team.”