Pitt volleyball team elated to make NCAA tournament, ready for Dayton


Redshirt senior Jenna Potts (14) helped the Pitt volleyball team qualify for the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2004. Jeff Ahearn | Senior Staff Photographer

By Steve Rotstein | Sports Editor

Members of the Pitt volleyball team sat anxiously in front of a TV screen inside their locker room Sunday night, eyes fixated on the 2016 NCAA Women’s Volleyball Selection Special.

Some held hands, others crossed their legs and fidgeted in their Pitt-embroidered cushioned seats. The regular season was over, but the players were holding out hope that they hadn’t played their last game together just yet.

Sure enough, the name “Pittsburgh” flashed up on the screen, and the players absolutely lost it. The women jumped up and hugged each other as initial screams of shock and excitement quickly turned to tears of joy and frantic posts to social media.

Missing from all the commotion was Pitt head coach Dan Fisher.

Similar to the NCAA Basketball Tournament, the NCAA Volleyball Tournament includes 64 teams, 32 of which automatically qualify by winning their conference. The other 32 teams deemed most deserving are then given at-large bids by the selection committee. After narrowly missing out on an at-large bid each of the last two seasons, Fisher decided to try something new during the announcement.

“I met with our captains [Maria Genitsaridi and Kamalani Akeo], and we’ve been two years all together, and we just said it’s been awful, it’s a terrible way to end your year when you don’t make it,” Fisher said Monday about watching the unveiling of the bracket with the team.

So when it came time to discover their fate at 9 p.m. Sunday, the players watched together from inside the locker room while Fisher watched from home with the rest of the coaching staff.

Apparently, the tradition switch worked for the Panthers, as they earned their first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2004. Winning 10 out of their last 11 games to finish the regular season 24-8 overall and 15-5 in the ACC might have had something to do with it too.

For seniors Jenna Potts and Genitsaridi — the only two members of Fisher’s first recruiting class — the selection was especially sweet.

“Honestly, nothing can top the moment you see our name on the screen. That was crazy,” Potts said Monday. “We were waiting for that moment for literally two years.”

Genitsaridi, the catalyst of Pitt’s improbable comeback against North Carolina State that sparked the team’s late-season surge, seemed both relieved and excited for the opportunity.

“I think we definitely deserved it, we worked so hard,” Genitsaridi said in a Pitt LiveWire video. “We believed in ourselves, we believed in the coaching staff and now we got the results.”

Fisher didn’t have as much time to celebrate, as he received a congratulatory phone call from Pitt Athletic Director Scott Barnes “within like two seconds of the announcement.” His next conversation right afterward was a FaceTime call with his captains, as promised.

By making the tournament in their fourth year, Potts, Genitsaridi and Fisher accomplished what might have seemed unthinkable when they first arrived at Pitt before the 2013 season.

Fisher turned around a program that he said wasn’t even among the top 100 in the Rating Percentage Index, winning 19 games in 2013. The Panthers then followed with a 25-6 record in 2014 — their most wins since 2003 — to finish at No. 49 in the RPI, a jump of more than 80 spots in two years.

Still, it wasn’t good enough for Pitt to crack the NCAA Tournament as one of 32 at-large selections to the 64-team bracket.

Last year, the Panthers finished 23-9 and 13-7 in the ACC while facing a much tougher schedule. Pitt battled five ranked opponents compared to just two in 2014 and knocked off No. 15 Florida State in a 3-0 sweep for the first win over a top-25 team in Fisher’s tenure.

“I thought we were in last year. We had a chance two years ago, too, but it was kind of a long shot,” Fisher said.

Again, the selection committee decided the Panthers’ resume just wasn’t strong enough to merit a berth in the tournament.

Despite losing All-Americans Amanda Orchard and Kadi Kullerkann to graduation, Fisher had one goal for the team entering the season: make the NCAA Tournament or bust. Around the midway point of the year, it was looking more like bust.

Pitt lost back-to-back matches for the first time all season at Duke and Wake Forest. Then, after a win at Miami, the team dropped two more in a row against No. 15 Florida State and Notre Dame. With a 14-7 overall record and 5-4 record in ACC play, the Panthers would have little margin for error the rest of the way to have any shot at making the tournament.

“Honestly, there was a moment, especially because I’m a senior, it’s my last year … we got a little scared,” Potts said. “But there was never a thought that we couldn’t do it, that we couldn’t turn our season around.”

After rebounding with a 3-0 sweep against Louisville, a couple of North Carolina teams came into the Fitzgerald Field House and provided the turning point for Pitt’s season.

The Panthers were in danger of yet another loss, this time against N.C. State. Trailing 2-1 in the match and facing match point down 24-18 in the fourth set, they would need at least six points in a row to avoid defeat.

“That was the craziest game I’ve ever been a part of … it was 18-24, and honestly, I thought we were going to lose,” Potts said. “But then Maria Genitsaridi gets on the service line and serves seven points in a row on match point, and after we won that [set], it was destined for us to win the whole match.”

Pitt came back to win the set, 35-33, then captured the fifth set to win the match, 3-2. That momentum carried over to another five-set win in a huge upset over No. 8 North Carolina and eventually a six-match winning streak.

Potts said the tough stretch of games actually helped the team refocus and finish the season strong.

“It played a big role in the way our season ultimately finished that we lost in that stretch, because we revamped some things and we became a stronger team,” Potts said. “So I’m kind of glad that happened that way.”

The Panthers then fell at home to Duke, 3-0, but won their final four matches to make a compelling case to the selection committee that they deserved a shot. Still, both Fisher and the players knew it was far from a guarantee.

“After last year, I wasn’t feeling confident at all,” Fisher said. “But I felt good about our resume.”

The committee rewarded the team with a first-round matchup against the Dayton Flyers, a team that finished the regular season 30-1 overall and a perfect 14-0 in the Atlantic 10. But with his bunch holding a top-10 win over UNC and a 3-1 record vs. top-25 opponents, Fisher doesn’t think Dayton will be the best team Pitt has played all year.

“No, I don’t think so. But I think they’re very, very good. It’s hard to say,” Fisher said. “I definitely think they’re a team very capable of beating us, so we’re [showing them] absolute respect.”

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