ACC co-champions Pitt (31-3) and Louisville (30-2) will meet Thursday for the right to make conference history. Together, the programs etched their names in the record books last season when they became the first ACC programs to reach the national semifinals in the same season.
This time, one of them will become the first ACC team to play in the last match of the NCAA women’s Division I volleyball season.
“In conference, we went 1-1 with Louisville,” said Pitt sophomore setter/hitter Rachel Fairbanks, “and we’re co-champions, so I guess this game will determine it all.”
Under 10th-year coach Dan Fisher, the Panthers have continued their steady ascent in the national ranks. Saturday’s victory over defending national-champion Wisconsin in the regional final was Pitt’s 140th since the start of the 2018 season, the most among Division I teams. It was the Panthers’ fifth victory over a top-10 team this season, the most not just in program history but in the history of all Pitt sports.
This season also represents the third consecutive in which the Panthers have reached at least the regional final.
Along the way, the Panthers have developed what Fisher calls a “friendly” rivalry with Louisville.
“Especially since (coach Dani Busboom Kelly) has been there,” Fisher said. “Over the last four years, I think we really have made each other better. There’s been years we had their number and years they had ours.
“I think we’ve been looking at each other as that’s the team we’ve got to be better than. And it turns out that standard is still a pretty good one.”
Of course, having that rivalry means the programs know each other well. The strategies and tendencies of each hold few surprises for the other.
Fisher said that familiarity doesn’t create a temptation to reinvent the wheel and try to do something out of character. He said it does, however, present intellectual challenges to him and his coaching staff.
“You’re always trying to keep your opponent uncomfortable,” he said. “What can we do that we maybe haven’t done? Or, can we look at the game in maybe a slightly different way to make them uncomfortable?”
Fisher never has been afraid to do something different throughout his time at Pitt. Not even when the stakes are at their highest.
Take the regional final against Wisconsin. Grad transfer Cam Ennis had spent her season as the Panthers’ third setter — she averages 2.44 assists per set — but against the Badgers, Fisher played her at outside hitter for the first time all season.
It was something Ennis, who played her first four seasons at Texas A&M, had done extensively in practice but not in a match situation.
Julianna Dalton, a sophomore outside hitter who played at Washington State last season, had been filling that role and averaging 2.19 kills per set, third on the team. But Dalton, Fisher said, has been battling injuries of late. He said he hopes to have her healthier for Omaha. In the meantime, Ennis showed she is a more-than-capable replacement, recording nine kills against Wisconsin.
Fisher said Ennis was recruited as an outside, but when Lexis Akeo was injured, “kind of put her back in a setting role. But we always had kept giving her reps on the outside, and that was always the plan.
“We had to figure out a new lineup, and there are things about it I really like. Cam’s got a great arm, so we’re potentially better offensively, and we have a really strong serving team with that lineup. We’re good defensively, but without Julianna out there, I think we are a little weaker blocking and in serve receive.”
These are among the buttons Fisher has to push and push at the correct time. He has chosen correctly more often than not.
Sophomore Emily Klika has moved into the regular libero role, taking over from the more experienced senior Ashley Browske, who continues to be used as a defensive specialist. Klika had 16 of Pitt’s 88 digs against Wisconsin.
Dillyn Griffin, a freshman libero/defensive specialist, played in only 32 sets — none in the NCAA Tournament — leading up to the Wisconsin match, but Fisher inserted her as a serving specialist in the third set against the Badgers with the score tied 17-17. Griffin served for two points that gave the Panthers a lead they wouldn’t relinquish on the way to winning the set 25-21.
Cat Flood, a 6-2 junior, came in to serve three aces, equaling her season high.
“Our team is centered around being an all-around player,” Fairbanks said, “and I think each one of us is an all-around player. I think that’s just how the coaches taught us to play.”
If anyone would know about being an all-around player, it is Fairbanks. The 6-foot product of Tustin, California, was another of Fisher’s late-season chess moves. A year ago, her role increased exponentially down the stretch, and she played an important role in getting Pitt to the final four.
Fairbanks, a second-team All-ACC selection, continues to fill up the stat sheet. In addition to her 7.09 assists per set, she has 136 kills, a team-leading 39 aces, 282 digs and 46 blocks.
“We have to submit videos, All-American videos,” Fisher said, “and what they ask you to do is find two full sets that were two of their best sets. And sometimes that’s hard to do, to find a set that doesn’t have a really bad play or an error.
“We found sets of Rachel, and I was just, ‘Man, she’s touching every single ball. There’s a dig. There’s a set. There’s a hit.’ You just go through the amount of contacts on the ball in one set, and she’s really involved.”
When she’s setting, Fairbanks has any number of reliable targets. Grad transfer Courtney Buzzerio had 37 kills in the two matches at Wisconsin. The first-team All-ACC right side averages 3.70 kills per set and hits .329.
Redshirt junior Valeria Vazquez Gomez, also a first-team All-ACC pick, averages 2.90 kills per set and has demonstrated an improved all-around game. Against Wisconsin, she had 22 digs, her second-highest total of the season.
Ennis has added to the depth of hitters, and Dalton’s return to health would provide an extra lift.
Serena Gray, a grad middle blocker, also was a first-team All-ACC honoree and averages 2.02 kills and 1.08 blocks per set.
Gray has plenty of help in the middle from senior Chiamaka Nwokolo (1.45 kills per set, 145 total blocks) and fifth-year senior Sabrina Starks (1.20 kills per set, 44 total blocks).
Akeo averages 3.76 assists per set.
“Injuries are part of sports, so the times we’ve had someone banged up, we’ve been able to call on someone else,” he said. “And then the times someone hasn’t been performing, someone else has stepped in.
“But the main thing about depth for us is just having a high level in our practice gym.”
Practicing and playing against formidable competition, the Panthers believe, have prepared them for their semifinal meeting with Louisville. While Pitt might have developed a few new wrinkles since their most recent meeting with the Cardinals in mid-November, Louisville has installed an upgrade that isn’t new at all.
When the teams met for the first time October 23, and Pitt won in five, Louisville standout junior Anna DeBeer was out. DeBeer played only back row in the rematch as Louisville rolled to a convincing sweep.
“We had a really hard path (to the national semis), so I feel like we’re battle-tested,” Nwokolo said. “The final four, it’s not going to be an easy match … but we’ve already played in very hard matches.
“We love playing in front of big crowds and environments like (Madison). I think we’re all very excited.”
Added Buzzerio: “I think, environment wise, we’ve played at home in a tough game with BYU, then neutral with Florida and then, obviously, an extremely tough ‘away’ match against Wisconsin. So now, coming back to a neutral site with a team we are very familiar with poses challenges, and we’re ready to take it.”
Pitt has a chance to avenge two of its three losses. Their first came in the first match of the year against San Diego, a team it could see in the final. Fisher said one of his first thoughts after that loss was he hoped to get another shot at the Toreros in the postseason.
He said he had the same feeling after his team was, to use his words, “stomped on” at Louisville. That chance has arrived.
“But at the same time,” he said, “we would love to win a national championship, so whatever route gets us there is the main thing.”