Chinaza Ndee wanted to go to college to study medicine. She also wanted to play volleyball.
As one of the top players in the nation in her high school graduating class, Ndee had her choice of several schools. Problem was, she said, many of them wouldn’t let her do both.
Playing a Division I sport is demanding enough without the added pressure of pursuing a medical degree.
But Ndee found a willing partner in the University of Pittsburgh.
Coach Dan Fisher was more than happy to add a top-100 recruit to the fold of his burgeoning program, and Pittsburgh was the perfect place to work toward a medical degree. In the city’s Oakland section, where Pitt is located, there’s practically a hospital on every corner.
So Ndee, a product of Houston Juniors, left the sunny, sultry climes of her native Texas for often-dreary western Pennsylvania. Even on the day of her official visit, Pittsburgh was cold and rainy, but Ndee was sold.
The Panthers are becoming an easier sell to top-flight recruits, and the barker behind the sales pitch is Fisher, who, earned his second straight ACC Coach of the Year honor Monday.
Equal parts philosopher, social scientist and volleyball coach, Fisher has crafted the Panthers into one of the nation’s fastest rising programs. A middling Big East club when Fisher was hired six years ago, Pitt enters its third consecutive NCAA Tournament as a first-time host.
Pitt drew the No. 12 overall seed and will welcome Metro Atlantic-champion Iona, Patriot League-winner Navy and Big Ten at-large Michigan to the Petersen Events Center on Friday and Saturday. Pitt plays Iona, making its first NCAA appearance, at 7 p.m. Eastern after the Wolverines face Navy. The winners square off at 7 p.m. Saturday at 7 with a spot in the NCAA round of 16 on the line. (For what it’s worth, Pitt and Michigan met in Pittsburgh in 2016, with the Panthers earning a 3-2 win.)
Being a host was a reward for the team’s landmark season.
“We’ve worked so hard for it,” Ndee said
The Panthers (29-1, 17-1 ACC) won their second consecutive ACC title, taking it outright for the first time and becoming the school’s first program to win back-to-back ACC crowns.
Their .967 overall winning percentage represented the highest in program history, and their .944 winning percentage in the ACC also was a program high. The Panthers went 18-0 at home this season — the signature win a 3-0 demolition of then-No. 12 and current No. 19 Washington — including 9-0 vs. the ACC.
“The fan base has been rising so much,” Ndee said. “We want Pittsburgh to see how good we are and how big volleyball really is and how much it can really bring to the city.”
Added 2017 All-ACC first-team setter Kamalani Akeo: “That feeling of hosting will be just so fulfilling. That’s been our No. 1 goal.”
The Panthers’ first opportunity to host falls on a busy weekend for the university’s sports teams. The men’s basketball team will meet crosstown rival Duquesne in the annual “City Game” on Friday night. Then, on Saturday night, the football team will face No. 2 Clemson for the ACC championship.
It’s stiff competition for the volleyball team, but interest has grown enough that there still should be plenty of Pitt fans packing “The Pete.”
Twice this season the team broke program attendance records, the last coming in its Nov. 11 match against Duke, when 3,179 witnessed a Pitt victory.
Even early this season, the Panthers were playing to crowds of only a few hundred. But by mid-October, attendance took off. In their final four home matches, the Panthers averaged 2,560.
Their regular-season finale, a 3-0 win over Georgia Tech, was staged at Petersen Events Center as a sort of dress rehearsal in anticipation of being a host for the NCAA first round. Nearly 2,900 attended.
The team’s popularity explosion isn’t lost on junior outside hitter Stephanie Williams.
“It’s definitely surreal sometimes, especially when they took the upper bleachers down in the Field House (for the Duke match),” said Williams, who earned her third first-team All-ACC selection Monday. “It definitely helps us know that now that the athletic department, student body and even the community is involved, it makes us feel like what we’ve been working really hard toward, what our dreams are, is coming to fruition.
“It’s just so cool to see everyone so excited to see how the program has grown in just a few short years. The support behind it is amazing.”
The stands might have been mostly bare when Fisher arrived in Pittsburgh in 2013 — fresh off an NAIA national title at Concordia — but the cupboard wasn’t. He inherited players such as setter Jenna Jacobson and middle Amanda Orchard, who would earn two All-ACC honors, to form the foundation of his early teams and build a bridge to the current group.
But Fisher knew he needed more talent, and he had the cachet to get it.
Besides playing collegiately at Pacific and professionally in Europe for five years, his resume included a stint as an assistant with the Hawai’i men’s team and as an assistant with the gold-medal-winning U.S. Pan Am Cup team in 2012.
His first two splashy recruits arrived in 2016: Canadian middle blocker Layne Van Buskirk and opposite Nika Markovic of Slovenia. Both made the ACC all-freshman team and haven’t looked back: Markovic earned her second All-ACC first-team honor Monday, while Van Buskirk earned her first All-ACC first-team honor, one of only two unanimous selections in the league.
The big score came a year later with the addition of Ndee and Californian Kayla Lund, both ranked among the nation’s top-100 recruits in their class. Lund, a sophomore outside hitter, was the AVCA East Coast region freshman of the year last season and was named to the All-ACC first team Monday.
Fisher’s 2019 recruiting class includes three more top-100 players, including Hawai’ian Lexis Akeo, Kamalani’s younger sister, and 6-foot-5 middle Anastasia Russ, a home-grown talent who hails from Pittsburgh’s northern suburbs.
Talent is nice, but it doesn’t automatically lead to wins.
This, perhaps, is the linchpin of Fisher’s success: Talk to any player on the roster, and the word “culture” inevitably is used.
Fisher holds a degree in sociology with a minor in religious studies. He has applied what he learned about human nature to what he saw at the various stops on his playing and coaching trail, and what he learned, he said, was the teams that care about each other the most tend to be the most successful.
Aside from the obvious volleyball skill, Fisher looks for players who have a high level of trust and those who are willing to give up a little of themselves for the good of the team.
Williams said they call it the “sisterhood.”
“I think we’ve gained such a community of trust. (Fisher) looks for people who are good
students and good people in general,” Williams said. “He wants people who aren’t satisfied, who have a learning-growth mindset. We always are pushing the boundaries of what we think is possible.
“I don’t know if it’s a total pride-swallowing, but we’ve all bought into the selfless attitude.”
Added Ndee: “The first thing that comes to mind is direct communication. We’re just so honest with each other. If there’s ever a problem with somebody else on the team, it’s very quick conflict resolution.
“There’s a lot of trust, and … we just care about the game, about each other. … It’s never just all volleyball all the time.”
There also is an almost Zen aspect to Fisher’s approach. Akeo said the team will “meditate” before practices and games, with the goal of “seeing” their success — even the winning point in the NCAA championship.
“I think something that really works with us is we practice visualizing those moments,” Akeo said. “So if you see us before games, you’ll see us with our eyes closed, and we’re meditating and were walking through the first point of the match and the last point of the match.”
That all might sound a little too touchy-feely for this city. This is Pittsburgh, after all. The Steel City. A tough town that reveres burly, snarling hulks such as old-time Steelers legends Jack Lambert and Mean Joe Greene.
In that regard, Fisher’s philosophy fits like a rivet in an I-beam. He wants his players to have a certain amount of grit and ability to stand up under the demands of his program.
“We want to ultimately have some tough players,” Fisher said, “so we try to figure out if they have parents that have done everything for them or if they’ve had to do a few things themselves.”
The Panthers have opened eyes in their back yard. Now they want to make a deep Tournament run — they have been eliminated in the second round by Penn State the past two seasons — to further establish themselves nationally.
Williams said she believes others around the country are, slowly, beginning to take notice. Last year, Pittsburgh finished 26-7, tied Louisville for the ACC title at 18-2, and then got sent to Penn State for the NCAA Tournament. The Panthers beat VCU but then lost to Penn State in four.
“People are so used to the Big Ten or Pac-12 schools leading the top 10,” she said. “I think seeing Pittsburgh thrown in is kind of surprising to some people. But, hopefully, our name has been around long enough that people understand that we are a really great program and can compete with some of these schools.
“I think the volleyball community was shocked at first, but I think they’ve put a little respect to our name.”
Playing just three hours from Penn State, arguably the gold standard for women’s college volleyball, respect, perhaps, has been harder to come by. But Pitt has announced its arrival as a legit program.
And despite their rapid rise, the players don’t seem to be fazed. Fisher, in fact, said the bigger the stage, the more they relish the challenge.
“It doesn’t feel as big as it is,” Ndee said. “We see on paper that we’ve done a lot better, but there’s always more to do.
“When I came here, I knew the program was on the upswing, but it just feels like something we’ve worked so hard for. It just seemed destined to happen.”
Chuck Curtl is a sports copy editor/writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Follow him on Twitter @CCurti_Trib