PITTSBURGH — Around Pittsburgh, there’s a phrase often bandied about when one of the University of Pittsburgh’s sports teams — usually football or men’s basketball — is struggling … again.
Same old Pitt.
When applied to volleyball, however, “same old Pitt” carries an entirely different meaning. Since the Panthers moved their athletic programs to the ACC, coach Dan Fisher and his women’s team have been — by far — the university’s most successful team.
Under Fisher, now in his 10th season, Pitt has captured three ACC titles, been to the NCAA Tournament round of eight twice and, last year, made the program’s first national semifinal. Over the past four seasons, the Panthers have won more matches (109) than any Division I women’s volleyball program in the country and have been as high as No. 2 in the AVCA poll.
This season, Pitt again is among the nation’s best. The Panthers, No. 7 in the AVCA Coaches Poll, are 24-2 overall record, 14-0 in the ACC, and that includes a five-set win over then-No. 2 Louisville.
This past Sunday, the Panthers defeated Boston College in four for their 17th consecutive victory and program-record 15th straight on the road.
Same old Pitt, indeed.
Or is it?
In years past, the Panthers have built their success with offense, using an array of hitters who might have lacked height but more than made up for it with big hops and bigger arms. Think Amanda Orchard, Stephanie Williams, Chi Ndee and Kayla Lund.
The 2022 Panthers, however, are a new breed. Fisher’s rotation includes grad transfer Courtney Buzzerio (6-foot-5) and sophomore transfer Julianna Dalton (6-5) and holdovers Serena Gray (6-2), Sabrina Starks (6-2), Chia Nwokolo (6-1), Valeria Vazquez Gomez (6-1).
Even among the setters there is height. Rachel Fairbanks and Cam Ennis, who also has been used at outside hitter, both are 6-0.
“Not really intentional,” Fisher, who earned his 250th win at Pitt on Friday, said when asked about his team’s newfound size. “You always want to get bigger if they’re good enough. I just try to recruit the best players I can get, and it just worked out that way this year.
“ … The style, the set is a little slower, so we’ve had to make a few changes to our style of play a little bit. But whoever the best players are will play. But, all other things being equal, it’s nice to have size at the net.”
Said Buzzerio, a product of Chino Hills, Calif., who spent her first four seasons at Iowa: “I think last year, Pitt was known to be really fast, and, based on the personnel, they kind of needed to be. And this year people say we’re not as fast, and I think we do a good job of adapting to the personnel that we do have.
“We are able to find the changes and adapt to make people their most successful.”
Fisher said the Panthers’ offense remains a work in progress. But the defense has been clicking all season.
Pitt ranks first in the ACC and fourth in the nation in opponent hitting percentage (.140). The Panthers’ 2.63 blocks per set rank second in the ACC and 15th nationally.
As might be expected, the taller lineup has contributed to Pitt’s success on defense.
“I mean, come on. We have Courtney, she’s 6-5. Julianna Dalton is 6-5, too,” said Vazquez Gomez, a fifth-year outside from Puerto Rico. “We’re getting taller, more physical players as our program keeps getting better. That’s part of it.”
And Pitt will get even bigger and more physical next season after Fisher signed the highest-rated class in program history. Joining the Panthers will be a pair of 6-2 outside hitters: Torrey Stafford from Torrance, Calif., and Blaire Bayless from Plano, Texas, both five-star prospects according to Vballrecruiter.com. Prepvolleyball.com, meanwhile, rates them, respectively, as No. 12 and 42 in the nation. Also signed was 6-4 opposite Olivia Babcock from Los Angeles (No. 43, 5 stars) and 6-0 setter/opposite Haiti Tuatua’a from Wai’anae, Hawaii (No. 66, 4 stars).
Back in the present, Buzzerio, who averages 0.73 blocks per set, attributes a large part of the block’s success to the play of Pitt’s middles. That includes Gray, Nwokolo and Starks. Gray and Nwokolo both average better than 1.10 blocks per set, and Starks contributes 0.68 per set.
“Our middles are some of the best middles I have played with and played against,” Buzzerio said. “Their ability to close blocks and get their hands over and take up the middle of the court by themselves, there’s not a lot of times I get a block out of the middle or from the middle.”
Of course, there’s more to defense than the block. Pitt’s back row players have been doing their part as well. Ashley Browske, a senior libero from Highland Heights, Ohio, averages a team-leading 3.26 digs per set, and Fisher said she often plays her best against the Panthers’ best competition, evidenced by her 18 digs against current No. 2 San Diego, 18 against then-No. 10 Georgia Tech and 13 against Louisville.
Sophomore Emily Klika from Novelty, Ohio, also has been solid at libero when called upon, averaging 1.39 digs per set. Plenty of others contribute in the back row, too. Fairbanks ranks second on the team with 2.40 digs per set, and Vazquez Gomez is next at 2.18.
Even Dalton has proven strong in the back, averaging nearly 1.90 digs per set.
“At this point, (Dalton) is better in the back row than we could have ever imagined,” Fisher said. “At Washington State, she didn’t play in the back row, and she’s been a six-rotation player for us.”
“(Vazquez Gomez) is an all-around player, and the final piece for her was … she’s been a little inconsistent in the past with her serve receive. But in the last month and a half, she has really turned the corner and become a good passer.”
Said Vazquez Gomez: “I think my passing has improved a lot … I think another aspect is the coaches preach on self-talk. What you tell yourself matters a lot, especially when things aren’t going your way … So being able to flip a switch when things aren’t going your way is really important.”
Something that hasn’t been going Pitt’s way — at least not the way Fisher would like it to go — is the offense. Make no mistake: There’s still plenty to feel good about.
Gray, a fifth-year from Temple City, Calif., via Penn State, ranks second in the ACC in hitting percentage (.417). She along with Buzzerio, Vazquez Gomez and Dalton all average better than two kills per set.
For Vazquez Gomez, her 2.84 kills per set represent a career high. Buzzerio, meanwhile, ranks seventh in the ACC at 3.61 kills per set, and she’s hitting a robust .333, putting her just outside the top 10 in the conference.
She has been named the ACC Player of the Week three times, including back to back weeks in October. In the win over Louisville, she had 22 kills while hitting over .300.
“We knew she was a proven commodity in terms of someone that they set her a lot of balls at Iowa. We knew she’d be good,” Fisher said about Buzzerio. “I don’t think we knew she’d be this good. Her hitting percentages on the season for a pin is just ridiculous. She’s really making it look easy.”
Effective setting has helped, and Pitt has used three setters this season. Fairbanks, the Tustin, Calif., product who broke out at the end of last season by showing an all-around game, has been the primary quarterback, averaging nearly seven assists per set.
Veteran Lexis Akeo from Kapolei, Hawaii, averages 3.72 assists. And when Akeo was out early in the season, Ennis stepped in. Brought in primarily to compete on the outside, Ennis, who hails from San Antonio and played four years at Texas A&M, proved adept at running the offense. She has averaged 3.08 assists.
“Cam has just been a great team player this year,” Fisher said. “She still is setting some, but we’re having her play more on the left side now. But we feel we can win with any one of the setters.
“As a pure setter, (Fairbanks) is way better (than last year). She is better at running the middles from off the net. She maintains tempo to the pins better.”
Still, there’s room for improvement. Fisher noted teams that contend for national championships generally hit in the .300 range. The Panthers hitting .271 — good enough for second in the conference but not where they want to be. (Last year’s final four team hit .285.)
Buzzerio said she can see the offense starting to jell as the setters begin to formulate better communication with the hitters.
“It is getting better, the hitter and setter kind of knowing the situation of a play,” said Buzzerio, who was attracted to Pitt, in part, because of its nationally renowned medical program. “If it’s a really fast dig, but it’s 10 feet, we’re going to need (the set) a little higher to transition and get the best approach to swing at a ball … Just reading the rally, the timing of that, we could do better.”
Said Fisher: “I think if we keep improving offensively, we’ve got a shot.”
The “shot” Fisher spoke about was a national championship. That goal became far more realistic last season when the Panthers made it to the final four.
Talk of national championships is commonplace around Fitzgerald Field House these days. Vazquez Gomez also used the term when talking about Pitt’s goals for the season.
Outsiders might have wondered if Pitt’s appearance on the NCAA final four stage might have been a one-and-done when it took on two losses in the first nine matches, in the season opener to San Diego and then in a four-set stunner to Towson of the Colonial Athletic Association on the Panthers’ home floor in early September.
“We were struggling to kind of play our best volleyball when we weren’t playing a team that was ranked in the top 25,” Fisher said. “And I knew Towson was a really strong team, and I tried to put some fear in our players. But we didn’t get up for it.
“So we’ve been working hard all year on our consistency … maintaining our level, not changing our level depending on the day.”
Added Vazquez Gomez: “Everyone wants to beat us, and everyone is going to give us their best and give their all. So we’ve got to not be complacent and just play every team like it’s a top-10 match.”
The lesson must have been learned because the Panthers haven’t lost since. But work remains. Pitt is home for Syracuse on Friday, is off a week, and then goes to on November 18 before playing host to Georgia Tech the night before Thanksgiving. The regular season ends with a home match against Boston College.
“It’s been definitely fun to watch this team, kind of the evolution of it,” Fisher said. “I think if we get where we want to be (offensively), we’re going to be a scary team come the tournament.”
Added Vazquez Gomez: “I think everyone on the team has bought into the idea … what we’re doing in the gym isn’t to just win the ACC but win the national championship.”