History is Pitt volleyball’s toughest remaining opponent


Ally Hansen | Staff Photographer

Zoi Faki (10) returns the ball. Pitt volleyball swept Duke on Sunday and earned its best ACC start ever.

By Alex Lehmbeck, Staff Writer

With each passing week, it seems that Pitt volleyball establishes another program record. After sweeping Duke on Sunday to avenge last year’s loss and earn its best ACC start ever, it feels increasingly like Pitt is competing more with its own history than it is against conference opponents.

This entire season has been filled with firsts. The reigning back-to-back ACC champions entered the season as the No. 12 team in the AVCA poll before gradually moving up the ladder to a current No. 2 ranking, its best ever. The Panthers’ 12-0 ACC record is the best start in program history, as are their eight straight sweeps — winning 36 of the 37 sets in conference play so far. First-year setter Lexis Akeo extended her own team record on Monday by earning ACC Freshman of the Week honors for the sixth time this season.

And with only six matches left on their ACC schedule, the Panthers have a chance to cement themselves as the conference’s most dominant team of all time.

The ACC is not traditionally considered a volleyball powerhouse like the Big 10 or Pac-12, so it’s rare for one of its own to be this powerful of a national contender. Not only was Pitt’s No. 2 ranking a program record, but it also marked an all-time high for the ACC. If the Panthers can win out the rest of their conference schedule, they will be the first team to go undefeated in the ACC since Georgia Tech in 2004.

It’s worth noting that the ACC decided the conference winner through a postseason tournament since its inaugural season in 1980 until the end of the 2004 season. From then on, the ACC championship was awarded to the team with the best record in the regular season, eliminating the ACC tournament. Although Wake Forest finished 16-0 in the conference, it lost to Clemson in its first match of that final conference tournament. This means that Pitt — if it wins its last six matches — would become the first undefeated ACC Champion since Maryland in 1996.

The Panthers’ remaining schedule certainly gives them a shot. No ACC team aside from Pitt is currently ranked in the top 25, and it took a five-set thriller for then No. 4 Penn State to give Pitt its only loss of the season.

Pitt’s players, however, emphasize they aren’t looking ahead to any end-of-season accolades.

“Going undefeated would be great,” redshirt senior outside hitter Stephanie Williams said after Monday’s win. “But I think we just want to win out and hopefully keep building our resumé and keep climbing in the RPI. That’s what really matters.”

The fact that an undefeated ACC season is even a possibility surprises head coach Dan Fisher. Still, he wants the team to stay focused on the immediate future.

“It certainly was not a goal coming into the season, but I would love to [go undefeated],” Fisher said. “We still have some very strong teams on the schedule, and one’s coming next weekend. We’re going to focus on the task at hand.”

Even if Pitt does not finish perfect, the Panthers are well on their way to winning a third straight conference championship. With a three-match lead — and the head-to-head advantage — over second-place Florida State, it would take quite a collapse for the Panthers to not win the title. Assuming it can finish it out, Pitt would be the third program to win three consecutive ACC titles, joining Maryland and North Carolina, the latter of which accomplished the feat twice.

Regardless of how the rest of the ACC schedule turns out, Pitt’s ultimate goal is something no ACC team has ever accomplished — a National Championship title. Since the NCAA added volleyball to its organization in 1981, an ACC team has yet to even make the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four.

Pitt fans are certainly hoping their squad will be the team to break the mold, as the City of Pittsburgh will host the 2019 semifinals and championship in PPG Paints Arena.