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Pitt volleyball on the rise after another successful season

The women's volleyball team made it to the second round of this year's NCAA Tournament. | Courtesy Pitt Athletics

The women's volleyball team made it to the second round of this year's NCAA Tournament. | Courtesy Pitt Athletics

The women's volleyball team made it to the second round of this year's NCAA Tournament. | Courtesy Pitt Athletics

By David Leftwich | Staff Writer

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After losing two of the most decorated athletes in program history to graduation, 2016 could have easily been a down year for the Pitt volleyball team.

But thanks to an influx of first-year talent, it instead turned into a season to remember.

The Panthers finished 25-9 overall, making it back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004 and advancing to the second round of the tournament for the first time since 2003. While they fell short of NCAA glory, there are plenty of reasons for optimism looking forward.

As a team with only two seniors — and only one of them, middle blocker Jenna Potts, starting — the Panthers had to rely on a very young nucleus of players. Five of Pitt’s seven starters were underclassmen, and redshirt freshman Stephanie Williams led the team with 467 kills while putting together a first-team All-ACC campaign.

“This year was the biggest mystery, because we lost two All-Americans [Amanda Orchard and Kadi Kullerkann],” Pitt head coach Dan Fisher said before the start of the tournament. “So we felt like going in, we didn’t necessarily know our team as well as we did other years.”

In the Panthers’ first ACC road trip of the season in October, it looked like the team’s young core was overwhelmed by the stiff competition.

After losing three out of four matches on the road and then returning home to get shutout by Notre Dame, Pitt’s season seemed to be in a freefall, and the team’s NCAA Tournament chances seemed to be eroding.

Yet this inexperienced team bounced back and won 11 of its final 12 matches to sneak in the back door of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 12 years. And while the Panthers finally achieved their goal of making it back to the tournament, they weren’t satisfied with just getting there.

Peaking at just the right time, Pitt continued its hot streak into the tournament and ended Dayton’s season by handing the Flyers only their second loss in 32 matches of the year.

While leadership and coaching helped with this turnaround, another key factor was the emergence of true freshman Nika Markovic. Initially out of the lineup due to injury, she returned to the floor at just the right time against North Carolina State.

“She kind of had a fluky injury: a skin condition on her foot that got infected and had to have surgery,” Fisher said. “And that was right when she kind of established herself in that role, and we were starting to lean on her pretty heavily offensively.”

Her return helped the Panthers to an unthinkable comeback victory against NC State that ignited a six-game winning streak for the team. Pitt won nine out of its last 10 matches with Markovic in the lineup, as she averaged 2.08 kills per game and earned ACC All-Freshman team honors.

The team started to hit its stride with three primary scorers at outside hitter in Williams, Markovic and junior Mariah Bell, who finished second on the team with 402 kills. Then, the Panthers had their six-game winning streak snapped against Duke in mid-November, and they knew they couldn’t afford any more mistakes.

“It was a tough loss, but of course we can always come back from it,” Bell said afterward. “If we just win the next four games, I think we are going to do well.”

That’s exactly what Pitt did, and the four-game winning streak to end the season helped carry the team into the tournament as an at-large selection.

Looking ahead to next year, the biggest loss for the Panthers will be Potts. The redshirt senior holds Pitt’s all-time record in blocks with 573 for her career and hit 1.75 kills per set this year as a middle blocker.

Layne Van Buskirk, another true freshman starter for the Panthers, will look to fill that void and improve on her impressive rookie campaign as middle blocker. Van Buskirk hit 2.21 kills per set and was named a two-time ACC Freshman of the Week and ACC All-Freshman team member along with Markovic.

While the losses of Potts and fellow senior Maria Genitsaridi will surely hurt, all of Pitt’s other starters will be returning next year — including the three-pronged attack of Williams, Bell and Markovic at outside hitter and the ACC Setter of the Year, Kamalani Akeo.

The fluidity between these pieces of the offense should only improve with more time and more swings together during the offseason.

Additionally, the Panthers have a strong core of returning underclassmen on the bench and two highly touted recruits in Kayla Lund and Chinaza Ndee coming to the team next season. Fisher called Lund and Ndee “possibly the most decorated recruits we have gotten” during his four-year tenure at Pitt.

With all of the returning talent and strong recruiting class, the team’s performance this season looks to be only the beginning of an even more successful NCAA Tournament run in the near future.

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Pitt volleyball on the rise after another successful season