Thoughts on Pitt’s Women VB So Far

Pitt VB - BYU Nike Invitational Champions

Here is a nice, informative piece on women’s volleyball by John Demko as the season is underway. More info on the team can be found here: Pitt Women’s VB.

As there is a two week break between Pitt football games, I decided to write an article about my thoughts on where Pitt women’s volleyball stands one third of the way through the ACC schedule.

Pitt and Louisville are the two teams at the top of the standings at 6-0.  One of these two teams will win the ACC.  There is a five-way tie for third.  Georgia Tech will be the third-place team in the ACC this year at year’s end barring some sort of injury to their star player Julia Bergmann.

Only three ACC teams are ranked in the top twenty-five presently with no other ACC team even receiving votes.  Louisville is ranked #2, Pitt is ranked #8 and Georgia Tech is ranked #11.  I do not foresee any other ACC teams being ranked the rest of the year.  Georgia Tech will need to win all their remaining matches against teams not named Louisville or Pitt to host the first round of the tournament.

Pitt’s next four matches are at home.  This weekend they will play Miami and Florida State.  Next weekend they play Notre Dame and Louisville.  Hopefully there will be a big crowd for the Louisville game on Sunday, October 23rd.  The Steelers, if you can bear to watch, play in the evening so there is no excuse not to go.

There have been several surprises in the ACC this year.  One of them is Syracuse which started out with four conference wins.  They were brought back to reality this weekend with loses to Notre Dame and Louisville.  Wake Forest also has been a pleasant surprise.  This past weekend they defeated both UNC and NC State.

On the flip side Miami and UNC have been big disappointments.  Miami was ranked for several weeks but are just 3-3 in conference play.  They have yet to play the big three so they will have at least 3 more losses.  UNC has been a train wreck.  They, along with Florida State, were receiving votes at the beginning of the year.  They had a top ten recruiting class and had last year’s ACC freshman of the year, Mabrey Shaffmaster.  Unfortunately, the team has not come together very well.  I thought Florida State was overrated so, to me, they have not been a disappointment.

Pitt has the capacity to win the league but face an uphill struggle against Louisville.  On Sunday Pitt took care of business beating Georgia Tech in front of the largest crowd to ever see a women’s volleyball match there.  Georgia Tech has the best player in the ACC, Julia Bergmann.  She got some help against Pitt from her middles but Pitt had too many weapons and Pitt won the match in four sets.

Louisville is much more balanced and will be more difficult to defeat.  Another factor that will hurt Pitt is sometimes they seem to lose focus during the match.  Sunday against Georgia Tech was a good example.  After winning a close second set 27-25, Pitt got off to a slow start in the third.  At one point they were down 10-17 and 11-18 before getting in gear.  They lost the set 22-25.  They carried the momentum into the fourth set fortunately and won it easily 25-16.  They ran off 11 straight points after Georgia Tech opened the scoring at 1-0.

Pitt has been improving since the beginning of the season.  Courtney Buzzerio is our best player.  Against Julia Bergmann on Sunday, she held her own when she was opposite her at the net.  Valeria Vazquez Gomez has become a very good player.  This week she earned her first ACC player of the week award.  She has developed a powerful swing and has improved her defense in the back row.

Our two middles, Serena Gray and Chiamaka Nwokolo, are one of our strengths.  They will be the key against Louisville as they were against Georgia Tech.  In the back row Ashley Browske, our libero, is having a very good year.  She continues to make some amazing digs.

Setting is where we have had to improvise this year.  We have three individuals at the setter position led by Rachel Fairbank, Pitt’s Swiss Army knife.  Most of the time Pitt uses a 6-2 offense.  On Sunday, because Sabrina Starks was having an off day, Pitt went for a while to a 5-1.  This puts Rachel at the net where she has to block.  At 6’0” she usually can hold her own.  Rachel also has a pretty decent swing when she is playing at the net.  In the back row she is a defensive asset.

Lexis Akeo was supposed to be our second setter but she had an injury coming into the season.  This injury continues to nag her.  Against Georgia Tech she only played the first two sets.  Fortunately, Cam Ennis has developed into a good second setter.  In the event Lexis is unable to go, I feel Pitt does not lose much with Cam in the lineup.  Cam and Rachel have been on the floor at the same time when Coach Fisher uses Rachel as an outside hitter.

Other players that have been contributing to the team include 6’5” Juliana Dalton who is one of our six rotation players along with Vazquez Gomez.  She is just a sophomore and has a huge upside.  Cat Flood has been our serving specialist.  Sabrina Starks, who is a natural middle, has been used on the right side.  This gives Pitt a better blocker up front instead of using Rachel Fairbanks there.  Sabrina is still learning the position and has had some difficulty with her kill accuracy.

Emmy Klika and Dillyn Griffin have been used late in matches to shore up our back row defense as well as giving Browske some rest.  Rachel Jepsen, our fourth middle, has gotten some playing time in mop-up duty.

What have been Pitt’s strengths so far this year.  Right off the bat, we are a lot taller than we have ever been.  Buzzerio and Dalton can hit over blocks of smaller players.  Both of them can also jump well.  Our serving is another one of our weapons not only with aces but also keeping the other team out-of-system.

The third strength is our back row defense.  Browske, Fairbanks, and Vazquez Gomez have all been defending very well.  As usual, Pitt continues to play fast.  It took several weeks for the new hitters and one new setter to get used to the fast pace, but we continue to improve this Pitt trademark.  We are going to have to play very fast against Louisville to keep them on their heels.

What are Pitt’s weaknesses?  Teams that press Pitt at the net have given Pitt problems.  The Towson loss was a result of Pitt not having their “A” team in the match at the beginning and Towson pressing the net.

To overcome this pressing Pitt needs to receive well and have multiple available hitters for the setter.  Pitt continues to have problems with back row attacks with Courtney Buzzerio being the exception.  Unfortunately, Coach Fisher usually does not have a setter on the court when Courtney is serving.  She becomes our default setter if our libero gets first contact.  (Coach Fisher apparently read Annie’s comments about Courtney being a setter both at Iowa and on her high school team.)  Dalton and Vazquez Gomez need to improve their backrow attacks to give us a fourth kill option.

Another tool that can be used is to back set the ball to the opposite pin from where the setter is facing.  Lexis Akeo has been very good at this in the past.  Fairbanks and Ennis need to do more of this.

The Louisville match at Pitt in two weeks will be a good indicator if Pitt has what it takes to win the ACC and become one of the top four seeds in the tournament.  Pitt plays Louisville twice and has to play Georgia Tech again here in Pittsburgh.  Other than those three matches Pitt has no business losing to any other ACC team.  If they do, it will either be due to injuries or lack of focus.

Here is a link to the 2022 roster.

That’s my two cent’s worth.  What do the rest of you think?