The hunted became the hunter.
That might be the best way to describe the transformation of the University of Pittsburgh women since the calendar flipped to 2021.
For the past three seasons, the Panthers were the ones with the expectations, and they delivered. They won three consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference titles — losing only three conference matches in the process — and reached as high as No. 2 in the 2019 American Volleyball Coaches Association poll.
But when the 2020-21 season opened in the fall, Pitt stumbled out of the gate. In that eight-match stretch, the Panthers were saddled with more ACC losses than they had in the previous three seasons combined and stood at a pedestrian 4-4.
“The fall seemed a little more like survival at times,” said eighth-year coach Dan Fisher, noting the difficulties and uncertainties brought on by the lingering COVID-19 pandemic. “We didn’t even know if there was going to be an NCAA Tournament. We didn’t even know what we were playing for.”
When activities resumed for the spring season, the volleyball landscape was more settled. Schedules were set. The NCAA Tournament was a go. Coronavirus protocols were more minor inconvenience than maddening intrusion.
Pitt again could focus all its energy on improving and, suddenly, started to look like the three-time defending conference champion. Though there would be no four-peat, the Panthers showed they will be a tough out in the NCAA Tournament.
Pitt has not lost in 2021 (12-0) and received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament when the No. 18 Panthers will open Wednesday in Omaha against LIU (8-5), winner of the Northeast Conference.
“I think when we got back from (winter) break, we kind of had this feeling that we needed to go 12-0 in the spring,” Fisher said. “So the challenge I made was, in the past, we were this team that was supposed to win the league, and we had expectations and there was some sense of playing not to lose something.
“I said, ‘We need to wake up and see reality. We need to be an underdog and play our way in.’ That was the switch we made. The teams we played have something we want. They’re not trying to take it from us.”
As to the struggles in the fall, a couple of factors were involved.
For one, over the previous two seasons, the Panthers had graduated some formidable players, players who built the program into a national name: Stephanie Williams, Nika Markovic, Layne Van Buskirk, Kamalani Akeo and Angela Seaman.
That meant a new crop of players was going to have to step in and take up the slack. Senior outside hitter Kayla Lund — who, on April 5, was named the first back-to-back winner of the conference’s player of the year award — and classmate Chinaza Ndee, a senior from Houston, did their part. Others, however, were having difficulty elevating their games to take the pressure off Lund and Ndee.
That could be attributed directly to the other issue: disruptions brought on by the pandemic. Specifically, they affected the development of the current sophomore class, arguably Fisher’s best recruiting class at Pitt.
Players such as Lexis Akeo, Ashley Browske, Valeria Vazquez Gomez, Anastasia Russ and Chiamaka Nwokolo were going to be counted on heavily to keep the Panthers among the nation’s elite. But their learning curve was slowed when the coronavirus halted activities.
“That whole class, their whole freshman offseason was cut short,” Fisher said, “so they didn’t have the normal freshman development. They have caught up and are making an impact.”
Lund, the 6-footer from Pasadena, California, echoed Fisher’s sentiments.
“I see it every day in the practice gym, the work they put in and what they’re capable of,” Lund said. “They were finally able to prove themselves and show everybody what they can do in games.”
Lund, on the other hand, didn’t have much to prove — other than, perhaps, she should be considered among the finest players in the nation. Fisher believes she accomplished that.
“She’s not the tallest or biggest jumper, but she’s in the conversation as one of the best college volleyball players in the country right now,” he said. “She’s good at big things. She’s good at small things. I just think she affects the game in so many different ways.”
With Lund doing her thing and the talented second-year players finding their footing, the Panthers have been able to diversify their attack. Lund and Ndee, both All-ACC first-teamers this season, have continued to be Pitt’s go-to hitters. They rank 1-2 on the team in kills (Lund 275, Ndee 234) and kills per set (Lund 3.82, Ndee 3.25).
Meanwhile junior middle and second-team All-ACC pick Sabrina Starks (a junior from Springfield, Nebraska, who has 116 kills, .368 hitting percentage), Vazquez Gomez (a redshirt-freshman from Puerto Rico with 129 kills) and Nwokolo (a sophomore from Columbus, Ohio, who has 123 kills, .393) have given defenses something else to think about.
Making the Panthers’ offense go is the setter tandem of Akeo and Kylee Levers. Akeo (a sophomore from Kapolei, Hawai’i) averaged better than 10 assists per set as a true freshman in 2019 while Levers (a senior from Washington, Pennsylvania) was sidelined for the season with a knee injury.
The two have complemented each other well in Fisher’s 6-2 system, with Akeo averaging 5.96 assists/set and Levers 5.46.
“They have been awesome,” Lund said. “They have done a great job connecting with every single hitter, no matter what situation we’re in or what lineup we’re putting out there.”
Browske, a sophomore from Highland Heights, Ohio, has been a revelation as the libero, solidifying the back line by averaging 2.75 digs and posting a .960 receive percentage.
“She has made a huge difference for us,” Lund said.
Now Pittsburgh will see if it all adds up to a huge difference in the NCAA Tournament. The Panthers have made it to the past four postseasons and each time, they were eliminated in the second round. The past two were particularly painful, as they occurred with Pittsburgh serving as a host site.
But unlike the previous two tournaments, Pitt is playing the role of predator as opposed to prey. Lund said they will continue to stick with the approach that has served them so well.
“The underdog mentality is something we have had throughout the spring season, and that’s something we want to continue having,” she said. “We have totally accepted the underdog mentality and a killer instinct that comes with it.
“We’re playing with nothing to lose. We’re ready to surprise some people.”
LIU is back into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2017. The Panthers won the Northeast Conference title when the conference tournament championship match was canceled because Sacred Heart, the other finalist, couldn’t meet the minimum roster requirements because of contact tracing.
LIU, 8-5 overall, was 8-4 in the NEC and two of those losses were to Sacred Heart. Czech sophomore outside Karolina Nova leads LIU with 208 kills (4.08/set). Croatian senior middle Kristina Mamic has 43 blocks, eight solo. Floridian junior Anastasia Scott averages 5.7 digs.
The winner gets the Pac-12’s Utah on Thursday.