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Volleyball to host opening tournament matches as No. 12 seed

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Volleyball to host opening tournament matches as No. 12 seed

Juniors Stephanie Williams (left), Nika Markovic (center) and Layne Van Buskirk (right) all provide Pitt's volleyball team with valuable tournament experience.

Juniors Stephanie Williams (left), Nika Markovic (center) and Layne Van Buskirk (right) all provide Pitt's volleyball team with valuable tournament experience.

Kaycee Orwig | Staff Photographer

Juniors Stephanie Williams (left), Nika Markovic (center) and Layne Van Buskirk (right) all provide Pitt's volleyball team with valuable tournament experience.

Kaycee Orwig | Staff Photographer

Kaycee Orwig | Staff Photographer

Juniors Stephanie Williams (left), Nika Markovic (center) and Layne Van Buskirk (right) all provide Pitt's volleyball team with valuable tournament experience.

By Trent Leonard, Sports Editor

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For the first time in program history, Pitt’s volleyball team will host a playoff round, starting Friday, Nov. 29, as announced by the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Tournament selection committee Sunday night.

The Panthers (29-1 overall, 17-1 ACC) earned an automatic bid in the tournament by winning their conference for the second straight year. They did so in dominant fashion, finishing with a program-high 0.967 winning percentage and the most regular-season wins since 1990.

Pitt’s standout season earned the respect of the selection committee, which granted the Panthers a No. 12 seed in the 64-team tournament. The top 16 seeds host the first two rounds on their home campus sites, ensuring that Pitt will play in front of a friendly Petersen Events Center crowd in its opening match versus Iona (20-7) Friday evening, then again versus the winner of Michigan (22-9) and Navy (23-8) if the Panthers move on.

The prospect of playing in front of a home playoff crowd is a notable step forward for Pitt’s program, which has seen three of its last four tournament trips end the same way — with a second-round loss to Penn State at State College. In those three appearances, which came in ’03, ’16 and ’17, the Panthers performed well enough to make the tournament and advance past the first round, but found themselves lumped into Penn State’s geographic region, where the Nittany Lions’ powerhouse program enjoyed a home court advantage.

This time around, the Panthers won’t have to worry about traveling or facing a top-tier opponent early on. For the first time ever, Pitt will be favored to advance past the first two rounds. If they do end up facing Penn State — which is having a down year by its standards, earning the No. 8 seed — it won’t be until the Final Four.

The ball is finally in Pitt’s court, both literally and figuratively. The Panthers, who went a perfect 18-0 in their regular-season home games, will face off against an Iona Gaels team that didn’t face a ranked opponent all season. Pitt, on the other hand, won all three of its matches against ranked teams by a combined margin of nine sets to two.

And unlike previous years, the Panthers’ entire core is composed of players who have critical tournament experience. For seniors Kamalani Akeo and Angela Seman, as well as juniors Nika Markovic, Layne Van Buskirk and Stephanie Williams, this will be their third consecutive tournament appearance. Two straight years of the same result — a 3-1 loss at Penn State in both 2016 and 2017 — should serve as plenty motivation for this group of upperclassmen leaders.

Pitt’s promising class of sophomores, which includes kills-leader Kayla Lund and key rotation players Chinaza Ndee and Kylee Levers, also bring one year of playoff experience to the table.

The Panthers’ talented roster will continue to benefit from having a capable head coach in Dan Fisher, who on Monday was named ACC Volleyball Coach of the Year for the second straight season. Lund, Van Buskirk, Markovic and Williams were also selected for the All-ACC first team.

Pitt has improved steadily since Fisher took over in 2013. Since the current seniors were first-year players in 2015, the team’s win total has risen from 23, to 25, to 26 and finally 29 this season. With such visible improvement each year, it’s reasonable to expect the Panthers to shake off their second-round woes with wins over Iona and then Michigan, at which point they would likely face a top team on the road in No. 5 Texas (20-4).

But first things first — Pitt must take care of business against Iona Friday night, with the match slated to start at 7 p.m. in the Petersen Events Center.

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Volleyball to host opening tournament matches as No. 12 seed