Welcome to Pitt volleyball’s way ahead courtesy of our POV resident VB expert John Demko. This is a long piece but is a good lead-in to the 2021-22 tournament. John will keep us informed throughout the games. Read it and get ready for Pitt to put out a championship team that is not named “Football”, hard as that is to believe. Thanks John!
For the second year in a row our #3 seed Pitt Women’s volleyball team has made it to the Sweet Sixteen. This time they are hosting the regional at the Fitzgerald Field House. They will play unseeded Kansas at 1:00 PM on Thursday, December 9th. The match is televised on ESPN+. Prior to that match #11 seed BYU will be playing #6 seed Purdue at 11:00 AM. The winners of both matches will meet at 4:00 PM on Saturday, December 11th.
Here is recap of how Pitt got here. Pitt played a tough out-of-conference schedule which they aced. Pitt entered conference play with a somewhat healthy lineup. Vazquez Gomez was the only player injured and unavailable. Pitt suffered three losses in conference play. Two of the losses came at the hands of undefeated and #1 seed Louisville. The third loss was to #8 seed Georgia Tech at home.
Due to these losses Pitt finished tied for second with Miami in the ACC standings. Pitt got the #3 seed in the tournament due to their #2 RPI ranking as well as their schedule both in and out of conference. This year the ACC was the strongest it has ever been in women’s volleyball.
With the #3 seed Pitt was guaranteed hosting the first four rounds of the tournament assuming they won the first two round matches. In the first round of the tournament Pitt played UMBC. While UMBC gave the Panthers a battle in the first set, the rest of the match was very one-sided in favor of Pitt. An important part of Pitt’s lineup was missing for most of the match, Kayla Lund. Kayla Lund had/has some sort of abdominal injury. She did not play at all in the last two matches of the season against Clemson and Louisville.
Pitt’s 2nd round opponent was our nemesis from State College, Penn State. In the three prior meetings with PSU in the NCAA tournament, Penn State had emerged victorious every single time. PSU is also the only team in the nation that has appeared in all the NCAA Women’s Volleyball tournaments. They had made it to the Sweet Sixteen in the tournament every year since 2002 and have won the tournament seven times. All of the previous statement was done under their current coach Russ Rose.
Based on the previous match against UMBC it did not appear that Kayla Lund would be up to her usual self for the match with Penn State. Fortunately, this turned out not to be the case. Kayla played her best match of the season if not her career. Kayla led the team with 21 kills and hit 0.421. She also had 10 digs and 4 block assists. Leketor Member-Meneh was right behind Kayla with 19 kills. Leketor carried us to the win in the first set while Kayla was warming up.
The entire match with Penn State was as close as volleyball match can be. There were multitudes of ties and lead changes in all four sets of the match. The first set was tied at 22 before Pitt reeled of three straight points to win it 25-22. The second set was also tied at 22 before Penn State won it 23-25. In the third set Penn State held a 15-18 lead. Pitt came back to tie it at 20-20. Penn State then took a 20-22 lead. Pitt tied it again at 22.
Valeria Vazquez came in to serve. Pitt reeled off the last three points including one ace and won 25-22. The last and fourth set was the closest. Penn State held a 14-18 lead. Pitt managed to tie at 21. Penn State then took a 23-21 lead. Pitt responded with a four-point run to win the set and match. Again, Valeria came in to serve and had an ace in the run. On the match point Russ Rose issued a challenge. The point was upheld in Pitt’s favor.
At the time I thought that it was very low-class act on Russ’s part. Subsequently I have been informed that Penn State was convinced there was a net violation during the point. It turned out that Chinaza Ndee’s hair hit the net during the point which did cause the net to move. Fortunately, a player’s hair hitting the net is NOT a net violation.
Before we discuss Kansas, I will bring us up-to-date on the lineup that will probably start for Pitt. Pitt continues to run a 6-2 system. There has been one major change who the two setters are. Lexis Akeo continues to be one setter. The other setter and the one who will probably start is now Rachel Fairbanks.
Rachel is also be used as an outside hitter when she is in the front line. This saves Coach Fisher a substitution We had two transfers into the program this year. Both made significant contributions. Leketor Member-Meneh; an outside, six rotation player; came to us from Missouri. She only stands 5’ 8” tall but she can touch 10’ 1”. She has a cannon for a right arm. I would say she was the MVP of the team in the regular season.
The second transfer was Serena Gray, a middle blocker, who came to us from Penn State. She is our starting middle blocker and is an excellent server. The starting lineup for Pitt will be Lund, Member-Meneh, Ndee, Gray, Browske, Fairbanks, and Nwokolo. Nwokolo is our second middle blocker and also plays on the outside. Akeo will be the second setter. The subs for outside hitter will be Vazquez Gomez and Lockwood. The third middle blocker will be Starks. Vazquez Gomez will also be used as a serving specialist.
Now we will discuss the Kansas Jayhawks. They finished 5th in the Big 12. which has only nine teams that play women’s volleyball. Oklahoma State does not field a team. Kansas’s record is 18-11. They were 8-8 in their conference. Their most impressive performance in the regular season was a 3-2 loss to #2 seed Texas in the regular season. They currently are on a six match winning streak. They swept #19 ranked Oregon in the first round of the tournament which was their most impressive win of the year.
In the second round they defeated #14 seed Creighton 3-1. The win over Creighton comes with an asterisk though. Senior Jaela Zimmerman, Creighton’s floor leader and outside hitter, tore her ACL midway through the first-round match against Ole Miss.
While Creighton was able to sweep Ole Miss, they did not have enough depth to defeat Kansas. What happened to Creighton is very reminiscent of Pitt’s 2019 loss to Michigan in the 2nd round. Kayla Lund got hurt in the first round and was not able to play against Wolverines.
Kansas strength is its outside hitters. #14 freshman outside hitter Caroline Bien leads the team in kills. She stands 6’-0” tall. #7 super-senior outside hitter Jenny Mosser is right behind Bien in kills. She stands 5’-11” tall. #9 sophomore middle blocker Caroline Crawford is the third leading Jayhawk in kills. She is 6’-3” tall. She also has the highest hitting % at 0.303. #2 Senior middle blocker Rachel Lang is also a major hitter for the Jayhawks. She is 6’-3” tall as well.
The Jayhawk’s team hitting % is 0.218 to their opponents 0.204. Only one Jayhawk has more service aces than service errors. That person is Bien who is also listed as a libero (Ed: a player on each team who serves as a defensive specialist. The libero wears a different colour from the rest of the team and is not allowed to serve or rotate to the front line.) Mosser and Bien are six rotation players.
Against Oregon Kansas hit 0.243 to Oregon’s 0.190. Kansas won the serve game against Oregon. Kansas had 6 aces to 5 errors. Oregon had 2 aces to 8 errors. In the match against Creighton Kansas hit 0.302 to Creighton’s 0.245. Creighton won the serve game with 6 aces/5 errors to Kansas’s 6 aces/ 7 errors.
Going through attack errors, blocks, and digs nothing jumps out as to why Kansas prevailed other than the hitting %. Against Oregon, Kansas got ahead and stayed ahead by a small margin through all the sets. Against Creighton, Kansas made a run in the 1st set and blew them out. Kansas then won a very close 2nd set. Creighton made a run in the middle of the 3rd set and won it. In the 4th set Creighton was leading by 15-11 before Kansas made their comeback and won the set by 3.
What are the keys for Pitt to defeat Kansas and advance to the Elite Eight again this year?
• Come out strong. Put the pressure on the Jayhawks right from the start.
• Win the serve/receive game as they did against Penn State. With Fairbanks, Gray, Lund, and Vazquez Gomez as our major servers we are stronger there than we were last year.
• Cut down on our unforced errors. The errors cost us the second set against Penn State. The players must not try to do too much. Our players are better than their players.
• Concentrate on two of Kansas’s outside hitters. Those hitters are Bien and Mosser. Neither are overly tall. We need to have people in their faces all match.
Kansas is the Cinderella of this year’s tournament. It is time for Pitt to turn the Jayhawks’ carriage back into a pumpkin. Pitt should win the match if they play as well as they did against Penn State. The thing I most worried about is an injured Kayla Lund. If she cannot play or is playing at a diminished capacity, then Pitt will probably need to go to 5 sets to defeat the Jayhawks. If Lund plays, they should win in four sets or less.
P/S: Here is a detailed video of our win over Penn State.
HAIL TO PITT!
…And one last bit. POVers in Charlotte!