Volleyball analysis: Error-prone Panthers struggle against top teams


Redshirt sophomore Stephanie Williams still leads the Panthers in kills this season despite inconsistent performance. (TPN file photo)

After fighting their way back from a two-set deficit against No. 25 Iowa State, the Panthers held serve with a chance to win the volleyball match in the fifth set. In losing that point and eventually the match on Sept. 2., the team squandered a big win and fell to 1-3 on the season.

Despite now holding a winning record, the Panthers (7-4) wasted opportunities for big wins this season and showed glaring weaknesses that may hurt the team moving forward.

Pitt had a chance to pick up a few signature wins in early season matchups against No. 3 Washington, No. 9 Creighton and No. 25 Iowa State.

This is exactly the kind of schedule the Panthers needed. The returning members from last season’s NCAA Tournament team should have boosted the team’s chances to rack up a few quality wins during this stretch.

But things didn’t quite work out.

The Washington Huskies and Creighton Bluejays made quick work of the Panthers, each winning 3-0. The Iowa State Cyclones beat the Panthers in a heartbreaking five-set thriller to hand the Panthers their third loss of the season.

In each of these matches, the Panthers couldn’t pull out victories because of errors and sloppy play. Against each ranked opponent, the Panthers committed 10 or more errors and hit no less than five errors in a set.

Just over the course of the third set against Creighton, the Panthers hit a whopping 11 errors and gave up three aces. In total they gifted 14 of the 25 points the Bluejays scored in their 25-19 set win.

One of the Panthers’ major problems is integrating highly touted first-years Kayla Lund and Chinaza Ndee into the lineup. Even though they have each put up double-digit kill performances, the two have been error-prone as well.

Lund hit nine errors against No. 3 Washington Friday, Aug. 25, and Ndee hit seven errors in the team’s loss to Iowa State Saturday, Sept. 2.

Any team can expect early season struggles from first-year players, but it’s surprising to see a decline in play from senior Mariah Bell and redshirt sophomore Stephanie Williams. It can be hard for a team like the Panthers to overcome these setbacks.

Bell’s performance is hurt by sharing minutes with these first-year players. She is averaging 1.74 kills per set — 1.5 kills lower than her average last season. She is also less efficient, recording a hitting percentage of .178 percent compared to .197 percent last season.

And while Williams has remained a top contributor for the Panthers, she has performed inconsistently. Against East Tennessee State Saturday, Sept. 9, she put up a season-high 21 kills, but against Creighton, she only hit a season-low three kills.

The inconsistency shows in Williams’ stats, as she has dropped from averaging 3.77 kills per set last season to 2.97 kills per set this season.

The combined inexperience of Lund and Ndee, along with the early-season decline of Bell and Williams, has produced a less productive, error-prone Panther offense and contributed to the team’s disappointing 4-4 start.

One the few positives during the first eight matches is sophomore Nika Markovic. She led the team with 3.61 kills per set and hit a career-high 26 kills against Western Kentucky Friday, Sept. 8.

While problems may still exist on the floor, the team made positive strides this past weekend at the Panther Challenge. Pitt won all three of their matches in just three sets and hit fewer than 10 errors in each.

Bell and Williams helped the Panthers jump out to an 8-1 lead with kills in the third set against Cleveland State. After forcing Cleveland State to call a time-out, Lund chipped in, scoring on two of the next three points with a kill and an ace to extend the Panthers’ lead to 11-1.

Ending the third set in a 25-10 route, Lund, Bell and Williams each recorded kills, and the team only committed one error that set. These three players displayed their ability to play well together and produce offensively without making mistakes. That was exactly what the Panthers struggled with prior to the Panther Challenge.

Even though these teams were weaker opponents than what the Panthers faced earlier this season, Pitt’s offense functioned with a better rhythm and even showed flashes of the NCAA Tournament team from last season.

Are the Panthers a sloppy, error-prone team like they showed in their first eight games, or are they something close to a tournament team as they were in the Panther Challenge?

In the end, they’re probably a mixture of both. Either way, the Panthers have a lot of work ahead of them after this preseason to compete in the ACC and make it back to the NCAA Tournament.

The team will put their four-game win streak on the line this Friday, Sept. 22, as they open up their ACC schedule against Syracuse at the Fitzgerald Field House.