Column: Pitt is a volleyball school now


Redshirt senior Angela Seman bumps the ball during Pitt’s 3-1 victory over Dayton September 7. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig | Staff Photographer)

By Stephen Thompson, For the Pitt News

Wet, cold and disappointed, I trudged out of Heinz Field after Pitt’s embarrassing loss to in-state rival Penn State alongside many other glum fans, wondering what to do with my school spirit.

In the following days, it was clear that a lot of enthusiasm for football had dissipated — leaving Pitt fans desperate for a team to bring much-needed energy back to campus. Pitt football can still be that team, but we can’t be sure of that for at least another few weeks.

The good news for Panther fans is that they don’t have to wait weeks or months for another team to fill that void, because at this very moment there is a team in Oakland making noise on a national stage.

Pitt women’s volleyball is undefeated through 12 games, ranked No. 9 in the country and eager to improve on its strong 2017 campaign. And to top it off, they’re underdogs — Pitt volleyball does not have the storied history or championship pedigree of schools like Nebraska or Stanford. For most of its existence, Pitt volleyball has been a middling team in the Big East, often finishing No. 5 or 6 in its conference. Since the first NCAA tournament in 1981, the Panthers have made it out of the first round only five times — and have never made it out of the second.

But this year’s team wants to change that. Pitt’s volleyball program had never seen the kind of success and attention that it has now until Dan Fisher was hired as head coach in 2013.

Fisher, now in his sixth year at Pitt, is fresh off an ACC Championship as well as an American Volleyball Coaches Association Coach of the Year award.

He brought new life to the program and the players immediately recognized that, some even before they stepped on campus as students. Redshirt senior libero Angela Seman — a nearby Seneca Valley native whose mother, father and uncle all attended Pitt — credited the new coaching staff as one of the biggest factors in her decision to stay home and play for Pitt.

“Before the coaching change, I really didn’t have any interest in coming to Pitt,” Seman said, “But once [Fisher] and the rest of the coaching staff got hired … I realized I didn’t want to be far [from home]. Then once the coaching change happened it was the best of both worlds. I get to play in the city I grew up in and for such a great program.”

Seman was in Fisher’s first recruiting class, and she’s noticed a significant change in the team’s attitude from when she was a first-year until now.

“We’re all more dedicated to wanting to be here and make this program better,” she said.

Fellow senior setter Kamalani Akeo’s recruitment was heavily influenced by the positive environment that developed.

“I met the team and I met the coaches and I really liked the culture and they seemed like more of a family than any other team,” said Akeo.

After losing to Penn State 3-1 in the second round of the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive year, the Panthers have revenge on their minds. While another ACC Championship is certainly a goal, Akeo says that a longer run in the NCAA Tournament is what every player is thinking about.

“We’re trying to push further in the NCAA Tournament and actually hope to host. We actually don’t have a whole lot of expectations in the ACC,” Akeo said. “Another ACC title would be great, but we want to get as far as we can in the NCAA Tournament.”

This team is determined and knows it has a long way to go before it can achieve what it wants this season. Expectations are sky-high, but you can expect a lot from these Panthers. Their squad is driven, experienced and talented — and they deserve all the support our Pitt community can give them.

They play every day with passion, intensity and pride. Their commitment to not only winning but growing as a team every time they take the court is obvious. The coaching staff holds the players accountable and expects a lot from them whenever they’re on the court.

“In volleyball, you can always give 100-percent effort — or perfect effort, as our coaches call it,” said Seman. “It’s not always going to work out, volleyball-wise. Some days you’re going to be a little off, but you can always give perfect effort.”

I went to my first game during O-Week and saw the Panthers play No. 24 Cal Poly, winning handily in four sets. For someone like me, who’d never been to a volleyball game and hardly knows the difference between a libero and an outside hitter, I was taken aback at the sport’s fast-paced nature. The sport features constant action and the energy on the court and leaves spectators on the edge of their seats.

Volleyball is without a doubt the university’s most successful team this year, and I encourage Panther fans to come to a game and see for themselves what makes Pitt volleyball so great.

And if the football game left you wanting to take another crack at Penn State, supporting Panthers’ volleyball this fall would be a beneficial move — a top-15 Pitt team would have a chance to host the the regional round of the NCAA Tournament, potentially setting up a rematch with the Nittany Lions.

I asked if the Panthers will beat Penn State this year. A confident Seman responded, “If we host, for sure.”