It’s NCAA Volleyball Tourney time and Pitt is It!

Here is a detailed look at the game of volleyball, the Panther’s woman’s volleyball team and NCAA tournament so far. It was written by “John in South Carolina” who is a long time reader who comments now and again. BTW – when I say detailed – I mean detailed!

A little history… Pitt’s women’s volleyball team is in their fifth NCAA tournament in a row.  It should have been for the sixth year in a row but six years ago the NCAA volleyball tournament committee did not believe in Pitt’s Head Coach Dan Fisher and his program. 

However, Louisville was the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) champion this year.  Four teams from the ACC surprisingly made the 48 team bracket this year.  Pitt was the best seeded of the other three conference mates. Beside Pitt, Notre Dame and Georgia Tech also made the tournament.  Pitt split two matches with Louisville and Notre Dame and swept the only match with Georgia Tech.

Here is a good article about Pitt’s volleyball season and how it got to the tournament.

One thing of note in the article is that Coach Fisher could not work with his players very much due to Covid at the beginning of the season.  This lead to two losses to Syracuse to start the season which would not have happened in any normal year, in my opinion.  Those two losses cost us the ACC championship. 

Coach Fisher is one of Pitt’s coaches that truly develops his players!  Pitt’s recruiting class for next year is already signed.  They have filled all the positions of need and have one open scholarship assuming all the seniors leave.  Coach Fisher is holding this scholarship for a graduate transfer I believe.

Here is a site that gives you an overview of the terms in Woman’s Volleyball:

If you are new to volleyball or just a casual observer here are the basics.  There are six players per side.  There are three hits allowed before the ball must cross the net between the two antennae, one on each end of the net.  A player is not allowed to touch the net.  If they touch the net during a point, the opposing side gets the point. 

A block at the net does not constitute a touch.  A player cannot hit the ball twice in a row except if the first touch is on a block.  A point starts with a serve by the team in possession of the ball.  A match end when a team wins three sets.  The first four sets in a match are won when a team reaches 25 points.  A team must win a set by two points or more.  If a fifth set is necessary that set goes only to 15 points.  Again the winning team must win by two points.  All sets continue until a team wins by two points. 

A team keeps servings if they win the point.  When the opposing team wins a point they then get to serve.  This is called a change of possession.  After each change of possession the players rotate in a clockwise manner.  During a rotation is also when players are normally substituted.  At the serve the players must be in their respective positions to each other on the court. 

After the serve, with a couple exceptions, they are free to move around the court.  A point starts with a serve.  The opposing team receives the serve with the first hit.  You cannot block or spike a serve.  After the “receive” on the first hit, the setter usually is the next person to touch the ball.  She sets the ball for her team’s hitters to kill the ball.  If the set is perfect, a hitter will be able to contact it at the top of her leap as close to the net as possible.  When all three of these things occur, the team is said to be “in system”. 

In other words, this is the ideal way for a team to play.  At this point the goal of the other team is to block the kill or dig it.  That means one or two of the opposing players get in front of the attacking player and try to stuff her kill back across the net.  Blocks are scored and a block can be solo or split by two players.  If there is no block a back row player goes to dig the kill and keep it in play.  If the kill is successful, the setter gets an assist and the attacking player is credited with a kill. 

The kill percentage for a player is the total number of kills minus the number of kill errors divided by total attempts.  A kill error is a kill that goes out of bound without anyone touching it.  Due to this formula a player and a team can have a negative kill percentage.  Players are broken down into hitters/blockers, setters, and defensive specialist/liberoes. (Ed: it’s OK here is a video also)   The libero is a defensive specialist that wears an opposite colored jersey than the rest of the team.  There are some special rules for liberoes with the most important being that when she goes in and out of the lineup she does not count as a substitution. 

There are 12 substitutions allowed per set by a team.  A libero only is allowed in the back row, hence the reason she does not count as a substitution.  In Division 1 NCAA Women’s Volleyball an institution can have up to 12 players on full scholarship.  In order to keep this article manageable I will stop with the basics here.

Pitt this year is playing a 6-2 offense.  What that means is Pitt is using six hitters (attackers) and two setters.  So, if you are only allowed six persons on the court, how can Pitt be doing this?  Simple, by double substituting Pitt always tries to have three hitters at the net and a setter in the back row.  Pitt’s two setters are #1 Lexis Akeo and #6 Kylee Levers

Pitt’s six hitters are led by two-time ACC player of the year and first team All-ACC #23 Kayla Lund.  Kayla leads the team in kills.  She is also a six rotation player.  This simply means as long as she is not tired the coach will let her on the court even when she is in the back row.  Kayla is a pretty good server.  She also makes a lot of digs.  Kayla has a good many double/double games.  This means she has had games where she has had double digit kills and double digit digs. 

Pitt’s other hitters are first team ACC #5 Chinaza Ndee, second team ACC #11 Sabrina Starks, #18 Jordan Lockwood, #2 Valeria Vazquez Gomez, and #20 Chiamaka NwokoloJordan Lockwood was the Junior College player of the year last year.  She led her team to the NCAA Junior College Championship title.  She had a slow start in the fall but she is coming on strong now. 

When Pitt substitutes usually Lockwood and Akeo come in as a pair.  Pitt’s main libero now is sophomore #4 Ashley Browske.  She is one of the reason Pitt turned around their season. 

At the beginning of the year our starting libero was graduate transfer #9 Marija Popovic from East Tennessee State University.  In the fall during some of the matches the opposing teams were actually serving at her, not a good sign for a position considered a defensive specialist.  She has been playing better in the spring but Browske is the far better player at this point. 

Pitt has one server specialist and that is #10 Zoi Faki.  Pitt’s best surprise this year has been Vazquez Gomez.  Next year if she continues her development she is the logical heir apparent to Kayla Lund.  She is a six position player now if not for Kayla.

All games in this year’s tournament are in Omaha, Nebraska.  The first round games are not being played in ideal conditions to say the least.  There are no locker rooms for the first round as the games are in a convention center.  ESPN is now going to have announcers for all first round games and they will be shown on the ESPN 3 streaming service.  ESPN was just going to broadcast the games previously with no commentary.  Pitt plays its first match on Wednesday, April 14th at 10:30 PM EDT against Long Island University (LIU) of the Northeastern Conference.  This should be a three-set sweep if Pitt is playing up to their potential.  LIU was the second-best team in the NEC. 

Sacred Heart, the best team, could not field a team for the championship game due to Covid tracing issues.  LIU best players are from overseas as they have New York City as a recruiting tool.  Fisher is friends with the LIU coach from when they both coached at lower college levels. 

Pitt then plays the University of Utah in the second round on Thursday, April 15th at 10:30 PM EDT.  Utah drew a bye in this year’s 48 team bracket.  I will try to write a follow-up article to look at how Pitt stacks up with Utah this year.  Last year Pitt beat Utah, 3-1, at a tournament in California.  In the current streak of trips to the NCAA tournament, Pitt has not been able to get it past the second round. 

Two years ago Lund got hurt in the first round.  Last year they lost to a team they beat in the regular season.  Both years the first two rounds were at the Peterson Events Center and hosted by Pitt.

Some things to look for during the LIU match. 

How balanced is Pitt’s attack?  If the kills are being spread out over the six hitters then it is hard for the opposing team to key on one or two hitters.  Pitt has spread out their offense this year better than they have in any year since Coach Fisher arrived. 

How is Pitt serving?  We should have more aces than service errors.  This has been a weakness of Pitt this year.  Between evenly matched team, this is the stat that usually decides the match.  It also allows a lesser opponent to beat a clearly better team. 

Pitt went to five sets with Duke and almost lost the match because of service errors.  Ironically they won the match on two service aces.  What is Pitt’s hitting percentage?  Anything above 0.200 is good.  What is the opposing team’s hitting percentage?  If we are holding them under 0.100 then we should be winning the match easily.  Same holds if we are hitting over 0.300. 

For the year Pitt is hitting 0.262 and our opponents are hitting 0.146.  If you want to keep stats during a match start with service aces and errors.  Next thing to record are number of kills and blocks.  A very good sign for Pitt, if there are no injuries, is if Russ, Popovic, and Flood get in the match.  Flood has been used a service specialist.  That means Fisher is emptying his bench.  Even if the match goes to four sets he thinks he is in control of the match and is giving tournament experience to his younger players.

The End (of lesson!)

The 1978 Pitt volleyball team, coached by Mike Hebert and playing home games at Trees Hall, was the school’s first to win the Eastern regional championship and advance to the collegiate volleyball national championships, then held by the AIAW, where they finished 13th in the nation