Pitt volleyball is ready for its encore


Kaycee Orwig | Senior Staff Photographer

Senior outside hitter Kayla Lund put away three crucial kills at the end of the first set.

By Trent Leonard, Sports Editor

When Kayla Lund hit the floor, she immediately knew the injury was bad. Not bad enough to keep her out for a season, a month or maybe even a week — but definitely bad enough to keep her from playing the very next day against Michigan in the second round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament, which was all that mattered at the time.

“I knew right away,” Lund, now a junior outside hitter on Pitt’s volleyball team, said. “I have never had that serious of an injury. I’ve had very minor injuries … But I knew pretty early on, like almost the second that it happened, that it wasn’t going to be any good.”

With the score tied 5-5 against Iona in the third set of Pitt’s first-round tournament game last November, Lund met an opponent at the net to defend a potential spike. Her opponent jumped too, but chose to pass the ball off to a teammate. The two returned to the ground almost simultaneously, with Lund landing on top of her opponent’s foot. She instantly collapsed to the ground, grabbing her right ankle. She couldn’t put any weight on it. By the time Pitt’s trainers helped Lund off the court, the ankle had already swollen profusely.

The Panthers swept the Gaels, but with the victory came the loss of Pitt’s season leader in points, kills and service aces.

Lund tried to play the next day, arriving at the team’s facility at 8 a.m. and rehabbing her ankle with the training staff non-stop, right up until about 30 minutes before the team played Michigan at 7 p.m. With enough tape wrapped around her ankle to block off a crime scene, Lund took the court with her teammates for pregame warm-ups.

But in a sport that involves quick and constant movement, there was no way she could do all the things that made her a great player. The team decided it would be better off rolling with then-redshirt sophomore Zoi Faki at 100% health rather than Lund at 60%.

Lund was confident that Faki had the talent to step in and give Pitt a chance to win. But what Faki simply couldn’t account for was the level of chemistry Lund had with the Panthers’ other five starters — senior Kamalani Akeo, junior Layne Van Buskirk, sophomore Chinaza Ndee, redshirt junior Stephanie Williams and junior Nika Markovic — who had started and played nearly every set and match together throughout the season.

“That’s what our team was used to, that was our starting lineup,” Lund said. “And so for that vibe, and the way that our team works, to change at such a high-pressure situation is definitely something tough.”

Lund could only watch from the sidelines as her teammates battled back from a 2-1 deficit before losing in the deciding fifth set, 15-9, to the No. 18 Wolverines.

Sarah Cutshall | Visual Editor
The Panthers high-five after being defeated by Michigan in the NCAA Volleyball Tournament in December.

And so, for the third straight year, Pitt’s season ended in second-round heartbreak — but with the realization that the program was on the brink of a postseason breakthrough.

This season, the Panthers took measures to improve even further upon last year’s 30-2 team. Pitt loaded up its 2019 schedule with tough non-conference opponents, both to simulate the level of competition it’ll face in the postseason and to improve the team’s rating percentage index, a tool used by the tournament selection committee which awards higher seeds to teams who faced better competition. Pitt will play No. 10 Oregon, No. 16 Utah and two games against No. 4 Penn State.

With Pitt now ranked No. 6 and fielding one of its most talented rosters since Fisher took over in 2013, the team is already gearing up for its ultimate goal — an extended run in the NCAA Tournament.

It helps that Pitt retained nearly all its production from 2018, including every starter except for Kamalani Akeo, who will certainly be missed after the star setter from Hawaii finished her Pitt career third all-time in assists. But the Panthers still maintained as much continuity as possible by replacing Kamalani with the next best thing — her sister, first-year setter Lexis Akeo.  

Lexis has picked up right where her older sister left off, leading the Panthers with 178 assists through six undefeated games so far. The Panthers have dominated all six games, winning every single one of their 18 sets.

For Lexis’ teammates — many of whom spent two or three years playing with Kamalani — it’s been interesting to play with each sister and see how they differ. Lund says the two are alike in some ways, but complete opposites in others.

“Their personalities are extremely different. They look alike, but I do not think they’re alike at all,” Lund said. “They do have similarities. The biggest one that always stands out to me is their work ethic … they both come in ready to work. You can tell Lexis is doing everything in her power to get better.”

Lexis has welcomed the challenge of having such big shoes to fill, saying that it adds a little extra motivation to create her own legacy within Pitt volleyball’s constantly improving program.

“I feel like I embrace it. Like, it’s a little competition between me and my sister,” Lexis said. “Like she set the standard already, and I want to beat that.”

Kaycee Orwig | Senior Staff Photographer
First-year Lexis Akeo is the sister of Kamalani Akeo, who graduated last year.

Head coach Dan Fisher is confident that Lexis can meet and even surpass the lofty expectations left by her sister, noting that she has a naturally higher ceiling because of her raw talent. Lexis wasn’t even a teenager yet when Fisher first met her on a recruiting visit with her and Kamalani’s family, but he monitored her impressive career and was quick to make an offer. Akeo committed to Pitt when she was still a sophomore in high school.

“It became clear early that Lexis was a little bit more talented, a little stronger, an inch taller,” Fisher said.

Though Lexis is talented, she doesn’t have to play perfect for Pitt to win. That’s because she’s surrounded by veteran leaders at every other starting position, including a trio of core players — Lund, Ndee and Van Buskirk — that all verbally committed within the same two-month span in 2015. At that point, Fisher started to picture a team that could make noise on a national stage.

“When those three players committed, I knew we had a chance,” he said. “They’re good enough that, now it’s on me. Now I need to coach.”

Fisher has also made a concerted effort to reach past his six starters and get the team’s bench more involved. Faki and redshirt senior transfer Hali Hillegas round out Fisher’s eight-deep rotation, while redshirt first-year Maddie Soboleski and sophomore Sabrina Starks have received notable playing time. By utilizing Pitt’s depth, Fisher wants to make sure that the team doesn’t miss a beat in a worst-case scenario like Lund’s injury in 2018.

The Panthers have yet to face a major challenge this season, but will put their 18-set win streak on the line when they host a talented No. 10 Oregon team on Wednesday night at the Fitzgerald Field House. The team will see if it can notch a seventh straight sweep, though Lexis says that being perfect every set isn’t Pitt’s highest priority. 

“Knock on wood, but I feel like that’s not the focus. Definitely not sets, but for sure games,” she said. “The goal is always to go far in the tournament.”