Pitt, Penn State prepare for paramount volleyball series


Kaycee Orwig | Senior Staff Photographer

First-year Lexis Akeo (1) talks with teammate Chinaza Ndee.

By Alex Lehmbeck, Staff Writer

The Petersen Events Center will play host to possibly the most anticipated home volleyball match in Pitt’s history on Sunday. The undefeated No. 6 Panthers will face off against rival and No. 4 team in the country, Penn State.

Pitt (10-0), is riding one of its best starts in program history, while Penn State (6-1) has plenty of strong victories logged on its own resumé. The Panthers beat No. 10 Oregon and No. 16 Utah last week as part of a challenging non-conference schedule. Penn State beat the Ducks as well, but dropped a match to the defending national champions and top-ranked Stanford Cardinal.

Although volleyball has been one of Pitt Athletics’ stronger programs in recent years, Penn State boasts a long history of volleyball prominence. In his 41st season as head coach, Russ Rose is Division I’s winningest coach ever, by both percentage and total victories, amassing over 1,200 wins in his tenure at a .861 winning percentage.

The Nittany Lions’ seven national championships are the second most of all time, all won with Rose at the helm. They’ve won six since 2007, including four in a row from 2007-2010. Penn State’s title total sits behind only the Stanford Cardinal, who won their eighth this past season.

The Nittany Lions roster is stacked with young stars. Sophomore setter Gabby Blossom averages 11.91 assists per set, the third best rate in the country, which when paired with sophomore Serena Gray and first-year Kaitlyn Hord — who rank fourth and sixth in the nation in hitting percentage, respectively — create a potent front line.

The hatred between these two schools is no secret. The rivalry dates back to their first football matchup in 1893. Although the football rivalry has received the most attention, all of Pitt’s sports teams have had some history with Penn State, especially volleyball.

“They say we have no rivals, but I feel like we have a rivalry with them just in general, since we’re both in Pennsylvania,” first-year setter Lexis Akeo said.

Penn State has had Pitt’s number in recent years, adding even more meaning to this weekend’s matchup. Penn State knocked Pitt out of the NCAA tournament two years in a row in 2016 and 2017, the Panthers’ first tournament appearances since 2004.

Pasadena, California, native Kayla Lund was not familiar with the rivalry before arriving at Pitt. Now, she realizes how much this game means to both schools.

“The history between Penn State and Pitt is something I’ve had to learn about,” Lund said. “With Pitt football just losing, this would be an awesome statement for us if we could get this [win].”

Lund, who played on the 2017 team that Penn State eliminated, emphasized that this game is much more than simply retribution.

“It would be great to get a vengeful victory over Penn State, but I wouldn’t say it’s too much about revenge because we have a completely different group of girls from a couple years ago,” Lund said. “This year is more about being able to continue making a statement for our program. We need to prove that we belong in competition with the best of the best, so playing Penn State will do that.”

The team will make a temporary move from its home at Fitzgerald Field House down Allequippa Street to a venue that can accommodate the magnitude of Sunday’s matchup. Sunday will be Pitt’s first match this season in the Petersen Events Center, usually home to Pitt basketball.

Last year’s team played its first and second round of NCAA tournament games in the Pete, but since this is Akeo’s first year with the team, she has yet to play at the venue.

“It’s pretty big, I’ve never played in a place that big before,” Akeo said before the season. “There’s supposed to be a lot of fans, so I’m pretty excited.”

As part of a home-and-home scenario, the two teams will first face off in State College on Friday night, then return to Pittsburgh for rematch at 1 p.m. on Sunday. Friday’s game can be viewed on Big Ten Network, while Sunday’s will be aired on the ACC Network.

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