Just when you thought the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference volleyball standings was all about No. 17 Florida State, No. 22 Louisville and the first team out of the AVCA poll this week, North Carolina, Pittsburgh has gotten everyone’s attention.
The Panthers have quietly moved to two games out of first by winning seven of their last eight matches. Kevin Wheeler offers this look at the team.
By Kevin Wheeler
The Pittsburgh Panthers are eyeing their first NCAA Tournament berth in more than 10 years and it’s theirs for the taking.
After sweeping two top-50 RPI teams in Florida State and Miami this past weekend, it appears Pitt controls its own destiny.
The Panthers (19-5, 9-3 ACC) leapfrogged almost two-dozen teams in this week’s all-important NCAA RPI rankings, moving up to No. 39.
“We’re cautiously optimistic,” third-year head coach Dan Fisher said. “I feel good about it, but we’re just trying to stay grounded and keep our team present-focused. We can’t win eight games at once.”
And with those eight matches remaining, Pitt knows this feeling all too well.
Pitt was left out of the NCAA Tournament field in 2014 despite a 25-6 overall record – the program’s highest win total since 2003 – and a borderline top-50 RPI spot at season’s end. So Fisher and his Panthers aren’t going to get too excited about where they stand after their big weekend.
The pin that burst Pitt’s tourney bubble in 2014 still stings just as bad almost a year later, and its been fueling this team ever since. Fisher and the Panthers wasted no time getting back on the court for offseason workouts. The offseason even included a week-long stint when the team stayed on campus over spring break to train – a tactic Fisher used the last two off seasons.
“Right when we got back we went hard,” Fisher said. “After just missing and being so close, when I announced we would be doing that again the girls were like, ‘Yeah, that’s what we have to do.’ ”
Fisher has been breeding a culture around his players that has made them hungry for success since his arrival at Pitt. The Panthers have not advanced to an NCAA Tournament since 2004, so it was no secret that the program needed a makeover.
The new coaching staff inherited some talent, including current starters Amanda Orchard, a senior middle from Lake Zurich, Ill., and Jenna Jacobson, a senior setter from Chicago.
And of course Fisher immediately hit the recruiting trail and snagged outside hitter Maria Genitsaridi out of Greece and Jenna Potts transferred from Xavier, which added some spark to the roster. All four currently start in 2015 for the Panthers.
Orchard and Jacobson, who were only sophomores at the time, were faced with the challenge of adjusting to an entirely new coaching staff that brought a much different mentality and attitude than what they grew accustomed to. That change has appeared to be for the best.
“I’ve been a part of two coaching staffs here and (Fisher) has really changed this entire program and its culture,” said Orchard. who has 205 kills this season and leads the team with her .426 hitting percentage.
“He’s made this culture surrounding us one of wanting to become really good at volleyball. Each player cares about the program and cares about getting better. In my freshman year, we didn’t really have a good culture or a good base to look up to. This coaching staff brought in a good set of players and set up a good culture for us to go by.”
Orchard, who struggled to find her niche during her freshman and sophomore campaigns, seems to have benefitted most from the coaching change.
It was Fisher who made the call to move Orchard from her original outside hitting position and bring her to the middle. She has flourished in her new role over the past two seasons and now holds the school records for career hitting percentage (.367) and single season hitting percentage (.431) set last year. After earning a spot on the 2014 All-ACC first team and an All-America honorable mention, Orchard was named a preseason All-ACC selection in 2015.
For Jacobson, the team’s current leader in assists (618), it’s been Fisher’s coaching competence that’s changed things for Pitt volleyball.
“He knows a lot about volleyball,” Jacobson said. “Every day when you come in to practice you know you need to work hard. You can’t have an off day. I think that mentality has gotten this program to be where it is and, with his knowledge, he’s made everyone better that has stepped foot in our gym.”
Fisher’s resume includes being an assistant men’s coach at Hawaii from 2009-11 and then two years at Concordia Irvine, where his women’s team won the 2012 NAIA national championship.
He coached the U.S. women’s national team to a gold medal in the 2015 Pan American Games in July, formerly served with Team USA as an assistant at the Pan Am Cup in 2012 and the World University Games in Thailand in 2007.
“He’s one of the best coaches in the nation, without a doubt,” said Potts, who is from Bernville, Pa. “He’s teaching us things that the national team players do, so we’re never questioning if he’s coaching us the right way. We trust in him fully because he’s so knowledgeable and so experienced. As a player and a coach, he’s just been through so many unique volleyball experiences that it makes it easier to trust him.”
Another transfer, Kadi Kullerkann, is a senior who played three years at Houston and now leads Pitt in kills with 308. Kullerkann is a graduate student from Estonia and the 6-4 outside/opposite was an AVCA honorable-mention All-American at Houston, where she led the American Athletic Conference in kills and points.
“It’s pretty easy for our team culture to be great this year because they’re the whole package,” Fisher said. “I think with this group of seniors – the work they put in, their skill level, the kind of people they are and the kind of students they are – it’s kind of running itself a little bit now. It’s been a fun year so far.”
The key phrase, of course, is “so far.”
The Panthers have to take care of business on the road for two consecutive weekends, starting Friday with a trip to No. 22 Louisville, 21st in RPI. Pitt then goes to Notre Dame (RPI 196) on Sunday.
Wins over North Carolina, Syracuse and Virginia could potentially help secure the Panthers’ RPI inside the top-40, but losses against NC State, Boston College, Syracuse or Virginia Tech would certainly hurt.
That’s why Fisher says, “It all depends on who you beat.”
The players, in the meantime, are trying to remain “in the moment,” according to Orchard, and not become overconfident based on one solid weekend of play.
“In this place we’re in, we know we have to go into each game with a lot of fire,” Orchard said.
“We really have to care about these next few games because we do control our own destiny. If we are able to pull out these wins, we’ll be in a good spot.”