Stephanie Williams had been here before, almost one year to the day.
It was the Michigan game. The Pitt volleyball team faced a 12-9 deficit in the fifth and final set.
Last year, the Panthers lost, and Williams left the court with a broken foot. She would have to sit out a majority of her first season. She would break her foot again. She would get depressed. She would heal.
But this time around, it was Michigan that erred. They sent the ball sailing into Williams’ territory, allowing her to slam it into the floorboards for a kill that would spark the Panthers’ comeback. Her teammates won four more points before she came back and nailed down the match-winning kill.
Final score: 15-12. The comeback for the team — and more specifically, Williams — was complete. But it was a long journey.
Talent was never an issue for Williams, a redshirt freshman outside hitter. But when injuries afflicted her for the first time, she started to question the longevity of her volleyball career.
She overcame not only the physical injuries but also the doubt of regaining her form and retaining a starting spot on the team.
This season, Williams has emerged as the go-to offensive option for the Pitt volleyball team, averaging 3.53 kills per set — almost an entire kill more than any other player on the team.
But her consistency and ability to play a variety of positions on the court are things she’s brought to the team since she started playing competitively back home.
Growing up in Eastlake, Ohio, Williams played basketball, softball and volleyball. After choosing to hone in on volleyball, she joined the Junior Olympic volleyball team in eighth grade and was named a starter on her high school team her first year.
Throughout her time in high school, she was a dominant and complete player. She played club volleyball for Cleveland Volleyball Company — a funnel for Division I talent — while juggling her high school team and the Junior Olympic squad.
Her athletic ability didn’t go unnoticed and brought along scholarship offers from Ohio University, Kent State and Cincinnati before the start of her sophomore year.
“Stephanie was always a high-flying kid that could fly and physically dominate the other team,” said Tom Ray, her high school head coach. “The level was a step above everyone else.”
During her sophomore season, Pitt joined the growing list of schools trying to tie down Williams.
“It actually took me a little bit of time to decide,” Panthers head coach Dan Fisher said. “Then, I went to her final tournament going into her junior year and got to watch her play all day, and was completely convinced she was going to be great.”
This decision immediately paid off for Fisher, as Williams had the fourth-highest average on the team with 2.31 kills per set during her first year.
As a senior in high school, Williams led Notre Dame-Cathedral Latin to its first ever state championship, finished on the All-Ohio First Team and was a 2015 Club Volleyball All-American.
Making the transition
This success on all levels translated to early success at Pitt. She joined an experienced roster full of veterans last season and managed to earn a starting spot.
At the end of her sophomore year, Williams verbally committed to Pitt. Besides the proximity to her home in Ohio and the strong healthcare career programs the University provided, she liked the impression she received from the team.
“The coaching staff and the team —I could tell — had a family culture, and they always wanted a learning environment, so I knew I could improve so much as a person and a player here,” Williams said.
All of this early success and a definite route for the future didn’t go to her head — she just kept pushing forward to improve into one of the best players in Ohio and to lead her high school team to its first ever state championship.
Which is why, after a successful preseason and start of the early season tournaments at Pitt, the misfortune that struck for Williams and the Panthers, stung extra sharp. It shattered more than her and the team’s goals.
On a tournament road trip in September 2015, in a match against No. 24 Michigan, Williams broke her foot — an injury that forced her to miss the remainder of the season.
It was the last match before ACC play that year. She had been so ready to prove herself. But instead of a jersey, she got sweats. Instead of kills, she got crutches.
“Breaking my foot so early on, I did not adjust well with that,” Williams said. “I stopped growing [as a player] and was very angry.”
She had worked so hard. On top of the general transitioning-to-life-as-a-first-year student-athlete stress, Williams was left with disappointment.
“I just really came into myself and was a little depressed,” Williams said. “It was probably the hardest time in my life.”
But with the help of the leaders on the team, Williams made it through the season and learned to pass and shoot from outside the front box, since she couldn’t jump.
A long road back
As the season closed in January, Williams could finally get back on the court. She rehabbed and started to take part in spring volleyball in preparation for the next season.
Her mindset: if she pushed herself to work as hard as possible, everything would fall into place. Even still, she was just happy to be playing volleyball.
She improved by adding a cross-body line shot to her game –– a deceptive shot where she initially looks to hit the ball cross-court but at the last minute hits the ball down the line.
With a new perspective and a new appreciation for the game itself, Williams was ready for the team’s summer 2016 trip to Greece — her first opportunity to compete since the injury.
Then, in the midst of the fun and competition of the trip, and after a few months of rehab, Williams broke her foot. Again. Not only was making it back for the start of this season in question, but her career was in jeopardy.
“Re-breaking my foot in Greece was just like a stab in the heart after working so hard to get back,” Williams said.
Maintaining an impressive level of positivity this time around, Williams kept faith in her coaches as she worked her way back. The incoming players daunted her, but she tried to improve in any way she could.
“I actually think I needed to break my foot to get better as a player,” Williams said. “Working on faster angles and developing new shots in the box really helped me.”
By the end of the summer, Williams could play and retained her starting spot on the roster despite not even making it back to 100 percent before the start of the season.
Even though she is still not back to perfect health, it hasn’t shown on the court. Williams already has seven matches where she tallied double-digit kills, including three matches with 20 or more and 21 against Michigan.
“She’s our best offensive player — there’s no question about that,” Fisher said. “I don’t want to say the sky’s the limit, but pretty close.”