Pittsburgh, oh so close, hopes it’s ready to crack the final NCAA tourney barrier

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Lexi Akeo sets during Pitt's scrimmage last week as Chinaza Ndee (5) approaches /Matt Hawley, Pitt Athletics

By her own admission, until last year, Missouri transfer Leketor Member-Meneh knew very little about the Pitt volleyball program.

Well, that’s a bit of an understatement.

“I never heard of them,” Member-Meneh admitted. “I did not even know they existed.”

Until a few years ago, Member-Meneh wasn’t alone. Pitt has been known primarily as a 20th-century football power, and, more recently, the Panthers had a perennial top-25 men’s basketball program.

Women’s volleyball?

Just another “non-revenue” sport toiling on the fringes. They barely were acknowledged in their own city, let alone outside of Pennsylvania.

Now? After reaching the NCAA Tournament round of eight — and coming within a whisker of the final four — as an at-large selection last season, coach Dan Fisher’s team is among those expected to make another deep NCAA Tournament run.

Pitt checked in at No. 9 in the AVCA preseason poll — three spots ahead of in-state rival and volleyball powerhouse Penn State — and, for the fourth consecutive year, was voted preseason favorite in the ACC. Fisher said his players, though new to such lofty expectations, won’t let it be a distraction — nor will they try to sweep it under the carpet.

“This is a mature group,” Fisher said. “The biggest challenge is eliminating the outside noise. The voices inside the room are the strongest. But the other thing is valuing the courage to go for it. We’re not shying away from saying (winning a national title) is what we want to do.”

Added Penn State transfer Serena Gray: “These girls are fully set on winning a national championship … There is a lot of optimism, but I think it’s well supported.”

Well supported by a number of factors.

Dan Fisher/Matt Hawley, Pitt Athletics

THE COACHES — Fisher embarks on his ninth season as the head coach of Pitt’s most successful sports program of the past five years.

The Panthers are looking for their fourth ACC title in the past five seasons and sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. Between the 2018 and 2020 seasons, Fisher led the team to the third-most wins in Division I (79), and Pitt’s winning percentage in that span is best among D-I programs (.898).

To newcomers such as Gray and Member-Meneh, his effect on the program’s success is obvious.

“Fish can turn players into what they never thought they could be,” said Member-Meneh, an all-SEC player in 2018. “He’s changed everything (about my game). I’ve been here two weeks, and I’ve already changed my passing, my offensive hitting, my footwork — my footwork was garbage. What hasn’t he changed?”

Member-Meneh could laugh about that discourse for a moment, but she turned serious quickly.

“I’m very appreciative. I feel like I haven’t learned this much in I don’t know how long. He’s on me every second, but he’s on me because he cares and knows the potential I can grow into in one year.”

Gray, a VolleyballMag.com honorable mention All-American in 2019 for Penn State, has noticed a difference in the way Fisher conducts practices. She calls the sessions “organized chaos,” practicing contingencies and odd touches on the ball that could occur in match situations.

She said it’s all part of the mindset he tries to instill in the players: be ready for anything. But his coaching style goes beyond X’s and O’s and drills.

“With Fish, there’s definitely an emphasis on mental health and family,” Gray said. “We recently held a team meeting, and each player shared a little of their vulnerable side and created this environment where … we understand each other and see each other as people.

“There’s something special going on here.”

Member-Meneh said the coaching staff and players are the main factors that lured her to Pitt (she committed before the team’s NCAA Tournament run last season). She said she had a few Zoom chats with the coaches and players and had a good feeling about the environment she would be entering. But she still was curious to see if perception and reality would mesh once she stepped on campus.

“At first I thought it was an act,” Member-Meneh said. “But when I got here, I realized it wasn’t an act. You can pretend all you want for an hour, but over an extended period of time, when goals get hard and practices get tough, eventually your true side comes out.

“I have been here four months, and it only has gotten better since the recruiting process. The team on Instagram is the team in the locker room. These girls choose each other every day. It’s not a facade.”

Stability on the coaching staff has helped maintain that culture. Fisher is under contract through 2026. His assistants, Kellen Petrone and Lindsey Behonick, are program fixtures, too.

Behonick has been an assistant under Fisher since the program joined the ACC in 2013. Petrone is in his fifth season as an assistant, but he has been part of the program since 2014, when he became Pitt’s director of volleyball operations.

“If you look at a lot of the most successful programs — the really successful programs — that’s pretty common: longtime assistants, stability in the program,” Fisher said. “Keeping your assistants, the current culture of your team.”

Added Member-Meneh: “Every single member (of the staff) is on the same page about everything. They all move as one, which I think is important to have.”

THE HOLDOVERS — In the wake of Pitt’s disappointing loss to Washington in the NCAA regional final — the Panthers were three points from advancing until the Huskies stormed back for a 3-2 victory — the team’s collective spirit got a lift when seniors Kayla Lund and Chi Ndee announced they would return for a fifth season.

Lund, the first back-to-back winner of the ACC’s Player of the Year award, and Ndee, a second-team AVCA All-American, took advantage of the “free” year the NCAA offered athletes because of disruptions caused by the covid-19 pandemic.

They will anchor a team Fisher calls “the strongest team we’ve ever had” — a refreshing and surprising revelation given the normally guarded nature of coachspeak. The Panthers will be talented and deep.

Setters Kylee Levers, a grad student and local girl, and junior Lexis Akeo return to quarterback a stable of hitters that also includes senior middle Sabrina Starks, junior right side Chiamaka Nwokolo, redshirt sophomore outside Valeria Vazquez Gomez, senior outside Jordan Lockwood, Member-Meneh (outside) and Gray (middle).

Libero/defensive specialist Ashley Browske also returns to anchor the back line.

“We could lose a player on any given weekend in any position and not skip a beat,” Fisher said. “We’ve had a lot of depth over the years but never by position as we do this year. Our second and third options are very good.”

Added Akeo: “We’ve never had this kind of depth and this good of players on our team before. We could play with a bunch of different lineups. There’s so much competition in practice. People are neck-and-neck.

“I think everyone made a jump, some bigger than others, but I think everyone got better.”

Leketor Member-Meneh attacks during Pitt’s scrimamge/Matt Hawley, Pitt Athletics

THE NEWCOMERS — As if returning the bulk of their spring 2021 team wasn’t enough, the Panthers added two former all-conference transfers in Gray and Member-Meneh. Whether in the starting rotation or coming in as reserves, the pair promises to add depth and versatility to Pitt’s lineup.

Fisher considered his middle hitters to be a solid, physical group even before Gray’s arrival. But Gray, he said, might be his most physical hitter and most efficient blocker. And she has shown the ability to pick up the Panthers’ system quickly.

“But something else we like about her is she has a really strong serve,” Fisher said.

Over 64 career matches at Penn State, Gray had 47 service aces.

Member-Meneh will make a noticeable impact — quite literally. Despite being just 5-foot-8, she promises to be one of the most forceful hitters in the ACC.

In 2019, her final season at Missouri, she amassed 340 kills (3.06 per set) and hit .263.

“This may sound like a big statement because you know how hard Kayla and Chi hit the ball, but Leketor might be our hardest hitter,” Fisher said. “She can crack it. She’s an enormous jumper.

“And she’s a pretty big personality, really outgoing. She brings a lot of confidence to the court.”

Akeo said she has been impressed with the way Gray and Member-Meneh have blended seamlessly with their new teammates.

“I think they are doing a great job,” she said. “They came in, and you can tell they are really open to learning our system.They have huge growth mindsets. They want to become better people and better volleyball players.”

Fisher said he also is excited about this season’s freshman class.

Among the many areas where Fisher has been successful in recruiting is plucking some of the top talent from the Pittsburgh area: a solid former libero in Angela Seman, current fifth-year setter Levers and budding redshirt sophomore middle hitter Anastasia Russ. He lured another for this season in 6-foot-2 freshman middle Makayla Jackson.

Whether those freshmen are part of the current success or the torch-bearers for the future remains to be seen. To crack the current lineup of veterans will take some doing, but the effort they put in to do so should make the Panthers even better.

“Pitt has definitely exceeded what I thought I was signing up for,” Gray said. “Their eyes are on the prize, and they’re doing the necessary things to get there.”

THE UPSHOT — Pitt’s climb to national prominence has been slow and steady. Each year under Fisher’s watch, the Panthers have taken a step forward.

Last season’s milestone was the NCAA round of eight — and darn near the national semifinals.

That begs the question: Are the Panthers truly capable of contending with the national powers and crashing their annual final-four party? The pieces certainly seem to be in place.

“I think our biggest thing is not being complacent,” Akeo said. “Last year was a big moment for us as a program. I think it just instilled a lot of confidence in us. We just know we have to keep working hard.”

With a team that possesses the experience, talent and depth Pitt seems to have, the biggest challenge might be finding enough balls to go around. On most teams, that could lead to a lot of bruised egos and battered psyches.

But the players insist that won’t be a problem. By all accounts, everyone, from the most battle-tested fifth-year to the greenest freshman, is committed to pull in the same direction.

And for the better part of the past decade, that direction has been up.

“The girls seem pretty humble, and they work very hard,” Gray said. “They don’t talk about not getting enough playing time, and they don’t seem entitled by any means.”

Added Akeo: “Each and every single person on this team is my sister, and the coaches are my family. We love each other, and when you love each other, you want to work harder for each other. It makes us want to be better for each other.”

VolleyballMag.com contributor Chuck Curti is a sports copy editor and writer for the Tribune-Review and Triblive.com (Greensburg, PA).
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