Pitt volleyball takes No. 2 spot — and is still climbing

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Pitt volleyball takes No. 2 spot — and is still climbing

First-year setter Lexis Akeo (1) received her fifth ACC Freshman of the Week honor on Monday.

First-year setter Lexis Akeo (1) received her fifth ACC Freshman of the Week honor on Monday.

Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

First-year setter Lexis Akeo (1) received her fifth ACC Freshman of the Week honor on Monday.

Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

First-year setter Lexis Akeo (1) received her fifth ACC Freshman of the Week honor on Monday.

By Trent Leonard, Sports Editor

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In a season that has seen Pitt volleyball continuously surpass its previously established standards and records, the Panthers added another accomplishment to their resumé on Monday afternoon — highest ranking in program history.

Pitt checked in at No. 2 in the latest American Volleyball Coaches Association poll, moving up from No. 3 the previous week. There was even a strong case for the Panthers to take the top overall spot, with previous No. 1 Baylor and No. 2 Stanford both losing. But No. 4 Texas — the team that beat Baylor — hopped Pitt in the rankings to become the nation’s only remaining team looking down on the Panthers.

In addition to making team history, Pitt’s new ranking also marked the highest ever for an ACC team. The conference hasn’t historically been known as a volleyball powerhouse and is typically overshadowed by the dominant Big Ten and Pac-12. ACC teams like Pitt aren’t supposed to be allowed membership to the sport’s highest tier, led by perennial champions like Penn State and Stanford.

Ironically, it’s become harder to appreciate the Panthers’ accomplishments due to the rate and consistency at which they’ve piled up this season. Pitt entered the season ranked a program-best No. 12 in the preseason AVCA poll and has risen up the standings like clockwork ever since, first to No. 10, then No. 6, No. 4, No. 3 and now No. 2.

Pitt’s toughest challenges came early in the season during non-conference play against No. 10 Oregon, No. 16 Utah and No. 4 Penn State. The Panthers easily dispatched those opponents by respective margins of 3-1, 3-1 and 3-0 before falling in their lone loss to Penn State, 3-2.

Since that loss, Pitt has made a mockery of its ACC comrades. The team has won all 10 of its conference matchups, with nine of those victories coming via sweep. Only No. 23 Florida State was fortunate enough to steal a set, falling to the Panthers 3-1. If you’re following along with the math, Pitt has outscored its ACC foes 30 sets to one.

The Panthers have also dominated the ACC from an individual perspective, becoming a staple in the conference’s weekly honors. Junior Kayla Lund, senior Layne Van Buskirk and junior Chinaza Ndee have all won ACC Player of the Week at least once, while first-year setter Lexis Akeo recently won her program-record fifth ACC Freshman of the Week award.

By forming a monopoly over the ACC, Pitt has established a clear pathway to the No. 1 spot in the rankings. Only two of the Panthers’ eight remaining opponents — Louisville and Florida State — fall in the top 50 of the Rating Percentage Index, a quantity used to rank teams based on their wins, losses and strength of schedule. Assuming Pitt continues its dominant form, it’s safe to assume the Panthers will win out and finish the regular season 29-1.

Like Pitt, Texas has dismantled its conference schedule, sweeping seven of eight matches while conceding just one set. But the Longhorns face a tougher battle to win out, with three matchups remaining against RPI top-50 teams. Their most likely loss would come Nov. 20 against Baylor — still the No. 1 team according to RPI. Texas swept the Bears at home to move up in the rankings, but it might not fare so well on the road in what will be a revenge game for Baylor.

If Pitt does win out and the Longhorns falter, the Panthers could foreseeably take the No. 1 spot in the polls by season’s end. Not that it would matter for the program or its players, who have made it clear their focus lies on success in the NCAA tournament.

But it would certainly matter to Pitt’s fans, who haven’t seen any Panther programs be the very best at their respective sport in a long time. And with Pitt football once again stumbling, fans need any source of pride and hope they can cling to.

The Panthers will look to continue their march up the rankings when they take on Wake Forest this Friday at the Fitzgerald Field House, beginning at 7 p.m.

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