Pitt coach Dan Fisher says Panthers ready to build on two-year success

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Pitt and coach Dan Fisher broke a long drought and have been to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments/Pitt photo

Pitt volleyball is in a good place.

Just two players move on from a team that tied Louisville for the Atlantic Coast Conference title during an ACC season that was anything but what you might have expected going in.

But perennial-power North Carolina was decimated by injuries, NC State had its best season ever, and Louisville was way better than expected.

“Going in, most people would have thought UNC would have been the favorite,” Pitt coach Dan Fisher said. “And then it was kind of anyone’s guess between about five teams that would have been right behind them.”

Pitt, Louisville and NC State staged a tight three-team race much of the season, but NC State fell off at the end and finished third, tied with a late-surging Miami.

“It came down to the last couple of weeks, so it was an exciting year,” Fisher said.

Especially for the Panthers, who finished 26-7 overall, 18-2 in the ACC, and made it to the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year. Pitt beat VCU in the first round, but then lost in four at Penn State. It’s worth noting that Pitt’s 2016 NCAA appearance was the school’s first since 2004.

Fisher, who goes into his sixth season in 2018, has every reason to be encouraged. His entire season-ending starting lineup is intact and next year’s roster will have just three seniors, including Hawai’ian setter Kamalani Akeo.

Junior-to-be Nika Markovic is a 6-foot opposite from Slovenia who led Pitt in kills with 426, 3.94 per set.

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Pitt outside Stephanie Williams has established herself as a strong all-around player/Pitt photo

The outsides are 6-foot Stephanie Williams, who will be a junior, and 6-foot Kayla Lund, who had a strong rookie year.

Williams was second in kills with 377, 3.28 per set, and averaged 2.25 digs.

“She continues to get better at every aspect of her game,” Fisher said.

Lund averaged 2.53 kills and 2.09 digs.

“I think is going to have a really big sophomore year,” Fisher said.

Canadian middle Layne Van Buskirk — who “came out of nowhere as a freshman” — had her struggles at times as a sophomore during the regular season, but averaged 2.33 kills and led Pitt in blocking with 106, 10 solo, averaging .91 per set.

“She’s having a great offseason and she played fantastic in the NCAA Tournament,” Fisher said. For sure: She had 13 kills and hit .458 against VCU and had 11 kills and hit .346 against Penn State, getting three blocks, one solo.

The other middle is 5-11 Chinaza Ndee, who averaged .85 blocks 1.64 kills as a freshman.

And the libero is Angela Seman, a local product who will be a senior.

Fisher also hopes to get Kylee Levers into the setting mix in a 6-2, since Akeo is just 5-7. Levers will be a sophomore and is from nearby Washington, Pa.

“She made a really big jump last season,” Fisher said.

Accordingly, Ndee is training some on the right side and Alix Dreier, a 6-1 junior to be, could play the right side. And so could Zoi Faki, a 6-1 right side/outside from Greece who is recovering from knee surgery after sitting out 2017.

The team’s two seniors, middle Alex Rosignol and outside Mariah Bell, were not starting at season’s end.

“They were certainly good players,” Fisher said, “and we’re working on creating more depth in the offseason.”

That will include a four-player signing class and, Fisher said, the possibility of transfers coming in or the addition of a foreign player.

The signing class includes middles Sabrina Starks from Springfield, Nebraska, and Chandler Gorman from Houston; setter/middle Maddie Soboleski from Edinboro, Pa., which is about 110 miles north of Pittsburgh; and Natalie Steibel, an outside from Mason, Ohio.

Who might make an immediate impact?

“I don’t know completely yet. Certainly Sabrina Starks, who is probably ready to go as a blocker. We’ll see offensively,” Fisher said. “So our ’18 class, if one of them is ready to go, we’ll be over the moon. But we think that class has a lot of long-term potential.”

Pitt finished just outside the final AVCA Division I Coaches Poll and was No. 28 in the final NCAA RPI.

“It’s kind of the same theme this year, but last year, after finally getting over the hump of being so close after so many years and making the tournament, the first thing you’re worried about is the letdown the year after. And we didn’t have that,” Fisher said.

“We have a group of girls with a pretty serious focus about their game. It’s a pretty mature group and what I see in the gym is a team that’s committed to going further.”

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