Unbeaten No. 6 Pittsburgh has eyes on staying home in December

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Pitt volleyball 2019-Lexis Akeo-Kayla Lund-Hali Hillegas
Pitt defenders Lexis Akeo, Kayla Lund, and Hali Hillegas lunge for the pancake dig/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Unbeaten Pittsburgh is set for a big weekend.

The 10-0 Panthers, ranked No. 6 in the AVCA Coaches Poll, play at in-state rival No. 4 Penn State on Friday before returning home for a rematch on Sunday. It will be yet another barometer for a Pittsburgh program that has gotten off to a strong start in 2019 after going 30-2 last season.

How good are this year’s Panthers? 

“I think we’re still finding out, seventh-year Pittsburgh coach Dan Fisher said. “We know we’re good, the question is how good?”

The Panthers are coming off four impressive victories, first beating visiting Oregon at home and then going to Pepperdine to beat Cal Poly, then-No. 16 Utah, and then Pepperdine in five.

Pittsburgh had a tough end to the 2018 season. It beat Iona in the first round, but then got knocked off on its home court by Michigan in five for only its second loss of the year. 

The Panthers are still the team to beat in the ACC, where they were picked to win the league again. But things started off badly this season. On August 15, junior setter Kylee Levers’ season ended abruptly with an ACL injury. Levers, who had 596 assists, 77 blocks, and 33 digs in 2018, shared the setting job last season with Kamalani Akeo, who graduated.

Pitt volleyball 2019-Lexis Akeo
Pitt’s Lexis Akeo jump sets/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Luckily there was another Akeo to step in. Lexis, Kamalani’s sister is a freshman and the product of Kamehameha High School in Kapolei, Hawai’i, has stepped up admirably.

“We had a really experienced setter that got hurt and so it wasn’t the way we envisioned it,” Fisher said. “We thought we had some time to develop some younger setters, but the good news is, the way the team is responding, it’s been awesome. 

“It’s a really experienced group of hitters, and they’re being really patient with the setters, they’re working with them, and the way they’re treating our young setters is allowing both of them to really mature.”

Those hitters are quite formidable, an experienced fivesome that can carry the load in outside Kayla Lund, Nika Markovic, Stephanie Williams, Layne Van Buskirk and Chinaza Ndee. 

Pitt volleyball 2019-Kayla Lund
Pitt Junior outside Kayla Lund celebrates/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Lund, a 6-foot junior outside hitter from Pasadena, Calif., leads the team with 127 kills (3.63/set), has 12 aces, 11 blocks and is second in digs with 92. 

Markovic, a 6-foot senior right side from Slovenia, has 64 kills, 12 aces, and 13 blocks. 

Williams is a 6-foot senior outside from Eastlake, Ohio, has 93 kills, 13 aces, 83 digs and 17 blocks. 

Van Buskirk, who played with the Canadian national team this year, is a 6-3 middle from Windsor, Ontario, who has 39 blocks, four solo, 101 kills, 18 assist and 12 aces.

And Ndee, a 5-11 junior from Houston, has 79 kills and 25 blocks. 

“Kayla and Nika carried us a ton last year, and Kayla has really come into this year in great shape, and in my mind, playing the best volleyball of her life,” Fisher said. “Right now we have a little battle going on with Nika and Chinaza.

“Chinaza can play either middle or right side, and we also saw Sabrina (Starks) in the middle. So we’re still figuring out what our best lineup is.”

Starks, a 6-2 sophomore middle from Springfield, Nebraska, has 22 blocks and 30 kills.

Akeo is averaging a very credible 10.6 assists per set, has 12 aces and 73 digs.

“It’s definitely still a work in progress. Lexis is trying to gain confidence, but we’re trying to help her, and as we go through the season, it will just get better and better,” Markovic said. “She has already improved so much, she’s a warrior. We know that we’re going to help her through her struggles at times.”

Pittsburgh also has six freshman.

“A lot of players on the court are the same, but I think there’s a new energy that comes with a new group, and that too I think we’re still figuring out,” Fisher said. “It’s a group that loves being around each other, this freshman class, and in other years they would all have been on the court. 

“It’s a really talented team, it’s the deepest I’ve ever had, and I’m having fun coaching them.”

Lund is enjoying watching it come together.

“We’re good and it’s a lot of fun, because I know we haven’t reached our full potential yet in these matches,” Lund said. “You can see things that we struggle with, things that we do well, and I know that we haven’t reached our full potential and that’s exciting. 

“That’s what makes playing so fun, because you never know when it’s going to break through, and you never know when players are going to make it click. We have young players coming in at key positions. It’s awesome. We’re young, we’re good, we’re rolling with it, and we’re going to get better.”

Fisher, who grew up in Santa Barbara and played at Pacific before playing internationally indoors and then on the AVP tour, is 158-47 at Pittsburgh. 

His coaching resume includes working at Pacific on the men’s side and as an assistant at San Francisco and Hawai’i before two seasons as the head coach at Concordia (winning the 2012 NAIA national championship). He’s coached USA national teams.

Pitt has progressed from 25-9 in 2016 to 26-7 in 2017 to 30-2 in 2018, winning back-to-back ACC titles. The goal is higher, of course, especially with this year’s NCAA Championship in Pittsburgh.

“To represent our city would be very special for us, and of course, that’s something that’s in the back of everybody’s minds,” Markovic admitted. “Sometimes we’ll kick back and say, ‘Hey, let’s just stay in Pittsburgh.’”

Fisher would be OK with that.

“We want to be in a position where we can host,” Fisher said, referring to being of the top four teams in the NCAA bracket, which ensures playing at home the first four rounds. 

“We feel like that gives us the best chance to move to the sweet 16, and then from there, of course we want to be in the final four. We talked about it as a team, and time will tell if we’re good enough. We’re not shying away from saying that we want to be there.” 

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