By John in South Carolina
This is an update on where Pitt’s Women’s Volleyball team stands after two weekends of play with 6 matches played. Pitt is currently 5-1. They finally get to play at home this weekend in the Panther Challenge. They play twice on Friday and once on Saturday evening.
Pitt started out the season ranked #8 which I thought was a bit high. They opened their season at a tournament at Texas A&M. Their first match was against #25 San Diego. Unfortunately, there was one small problem going into that match.
As Annie reported in her article about Pitt’s intra-squad scrimmage, Lexis Akeo has some sort of injury did not playing. Lexis is a three-year starting setter. Pitt runs a 6-2 offense which requires two good setters. Coach Fisher went out and signed Cam Ennis, a graduate transfer, in late May. While she is listed as an OH, I thought at the time she was recruited as setter insurance even though Fisher made some comments about using her as a OH on the left side. Ennis played as a setter in three of the four sets of the scrimmage. What I did not know until recently was that she did not play as a setter during her last two years while at Texas A&M. She last played setter when she was at Kansas in her sophomore year.
Against San Diego Fisher used Ennis as a setter along with Rachel Fairbanks, who played for the U21 USA team that won the gold medal at the Pan American Cup games this summer. Coach Fisher also did some other experimenting with his lineups during this match. These included the following:
- Dillyn Griffin, a true freshman defensive specialist, was used as a serving specialist. This did not work out so well.
- Emmy Klika, a defensive specialist, was substituted for Valeria Vasquez Gomez when she rotated to the back row. This experiment was not successful as San Diego successfully attacked her with the serve.
- Sabrina Stark played the right side of the front row. While her use there has dramatically decreased since that match, it is a good way to get this super senior into the lineup and give a rest to one of the six rotation players.
- In set 3 when Pitt got way behind, Rachel Fairbanks was rested. Fisher also rested her in the 5th set when it became evident that Pitt was going to lose.
Pitt had a lot of hitting errors and seemed very tight. This was the first time this group had played together and were playing with a very rusty setter to boot! They lost the match in 5 sets. San Diego, being a very good team, also deserves credit for this defeat!
Pitt’s next opponent was Hawaii which was receiving votes in the AVCA polls. Pitt won the match 3-0. In this match Coach Fisher started to use the lineup that would be successful going forward. Pitt’s starting lineup consists of Setter/6 position player Rachel Fairbanks, RS Courtney Buzzerio, MB Serena Gray, OH/ 6 rotation player Valeria Vasquez Gomez, OH/6 rotation player Julianna Dalton, libero Ashley Browske, and 2nd MB Chiamaka Nwokolo. When Fairbanks rotates to the front, Cam Ennis is brought in to set. Dalton and Gomez play the left-side front. Buzzerio and Fairbanks play the right-side front.
Pitt also defeated the home team in the tournament, Texas A&M 3-0. In that match Rachel Fairbanks had 13 kills, 15 assists, and 12 digs for a triple-double. She was the first Pitt Panther to ever accomplish this in the 25-point rally scoring era which started in 2008. The last Panther to accomplish this prior to that was Azadeh Boroumand in 2006. Since that match Rachel also had multiple double-double matches. She is going to be on the U.S.A. senior national team some day! She is that good and she is only a true sophomore!
San Diego won the overall tournament by defeating all the other teams in the tournament. Ennis showed improvement with each match at Texas A&M but she was nowhere as fast and effective as Lexis.
In the AVCA poll the next week Pitt dropped down to #10. San Diego jumped the most of any team in the poll up to #15.
This past week Pitt traveled to Provo, Utah to play in the BYU Nike Invitational. Last year Pitt gave BYU their only regular season defeat when BYU came to Pitt and lost 3-1. That loss, as well as BYU’s less than impressive schedule, resulted in them being a #11 seed in the NCAA tournament. This resulted in them facing #6 Purdue in the Sweet Sixteen to whom they lost. BYU was looking forward to Pitt’s visit, especially with Pitt’s loss to San Diego. BYU was ranked #7 in the nation in the latest poll last week.
Pitt was scheduled to play two matches the second day of the tournament, Friday, and then play BYU, Saturday, the third day of the tournament. They played Cincinnati at 1 PM and defeated them 3-2. Pitt seemed out of sorts for most of the beginning of the match until it appeared they were in serious trouble after losing the third set and being down 2-1. They pulled away in the fourth set only to let Cincy gain some ground. In the fifth set Pitt decided “enough of this” and hit an incredible 0.643, winning the set 15-5 as well as the match.
In the evening at 7 PM Pitt played Utah State which was receiving votes in the AVCA poll. Pitt defeated Utah State in 3 straight sets. Utah State had lost to BYU the previous evening 3-0. They would go on to beat Cincinnati 3-0 on Saturday. BYU defeated Cincinnati on Friday evening after they played Pitt 3-1.
On Saturday evening the BYU’s gym was packed for the match against Pitt. To be successful against BYU Pitt had to press them at the net and keep them out of system. Pitt did exactly that and defeated BYU 3-1. Pitt also played great back row defense led by Browske with 17 digs followed closely by Fairbanks with 16. Fairbanks had one of her double-doubles as she had 30 assists followed by Cam Ennis with 23. This defeat ended BYU’s home 30-match home win streak that went back to 2019. Pitt also won the tournament with the win.
After the week’s results Pitt now sits at #7 in the AVCA poll, their highest ranking of the year. Other ACC teams in the poll are #4 Louisville and #5 Georgia Tech. Miami is receiving votes and would be #26 if the poll went past 25. San Diego has steadily moved up the polls and now sits at #12.
Louisville inexplicably did a face plant against #8 Ohio State this weekend so it will see how they recover over the next several weeks. #5 Georgia Tech at home plays San Diego and Ohio State this coming weekend. That will give everyone an idea where they stand on the national stage.
Some thoughts on the team going forward. Pitt probably is the third best team in the ACC at the moment behind Louisville and Georgia Tech but with the gap closing. Pitt will make a quick improvement, if and when, a healthy Lexis Akeo returns. If Lexis continues to be out for any length of time, it will be up to Cam Ennis to continue her steady improvement at the setter position. Pitt runs a very fast 6-2 offense which takes some time to master. Ennis is a good back row player so that is a plus to go along with her setting skills.
Valeria Vasquez Gomez has really developed into a good 6 rotation player. She still has room for improvement on back row defense but is getting there. She has developed a more powerful swing since last year. Last year she would have been our second six-rotation player if Member-Meneh would have not exploded on the national volleyball scene as she did. This is Julianna Dalton’s first year as a six-rotation player. She also needs to improve on her back row defense. In the matches so far, Julianna has attacked very infrequently from the back row. This may be due to Coach Fisher not wanting to add too much to her plate for the time being along with Ennis working on her setting skills.
Our libero, Ashley Browske, has improved from last year. In my mind there is no competition for the position at this time. In the BYU match she really came up big! Courtney Buzzerio has lived up to her hype. I have seen multiple Iowa supporters saying that they are glad she is finally able to play on a competitive team. She is only being used as a right-side hitter and a server. Buzzerio was a setter on her high school team. That must have been some team if they used a 6’5” player as a setter! She was also used as a server at Iowa, but only because their other setters were less than ideal.
This Pitt team still have a chance as a top four seed if Akeo comes back fully healthy or if Ennis continues to develop. Her ball movement has been improving and she is starting to move the ball away from the opponent’s blocking schemes. Against San Diego she was setting the ball to the obvious hitter. Once she set into a San Diego double team twice in a row on the same rally. Lately she has had some back sets and is moving the ball quicker. Pitt is actually better than I expected at this point in the season with no Akeo in the lineup, especially after watching a replay of the San Diego match.