Column | Pitt volleyball showcases depth in scrimmage, will have competition at outside hitter


TPN File Photo

Senior middle blocker Sabrina Starks celebrates after beating Howard in the first round of the NCAA volleyball tournament in 2019.

By Richie Smiechowski, Senior Staff Writer

Outside hitter Kayla Lund and right-side hitter Chinaza Ndee were centerpieces of the Panther rise to becoming a volleyball powerhouse from 2017-21. The two stars, alongside transfer outside hitter Leketor Member-Meneh, led Pitt to its first ever NCAA Final Four appearance in 2021, capping off their legendary careers in the blue and gold on a historic high note.

The graduated players have moved to the next stages of their lives, leaving collegiate volleyball in the past. Head coach Dan Fisher must now find and develop new players who will replicate their All-American level production if they want to yet again reach new heights in 2022.

On the current roster, there are several athletes who have patiently waited and will get their chance to prove themselves worthy of a starting spot this season. While the Panthers still boast several familiar faces on the court, competition within the team for the starting outside hitter positions will be fierce this offseason between both veteran and transfer players.

Fisher has already recruited three new players that will surely bolster the Panthers’ net presence in the 2022 season this offseason. Sophomore outside hitter Julianna Dalton, a transfer from Washington State, was the first athlete to enroll and begin practicing with the team this January.

Graduate student right-side hitter Courtney Buzzerio, a transfer from Iowa, and incoming first-year middle blocker Rachel Jepsen are Fisher’s two other roster additions made in the offseason. Both players will join the roster following graduation from their respective schools this spring.

For the Panthers, each of their three new athletes are over 6-foot-4, which in addition to their skillsets, is a massive addition to the team’s net presence. Senior middle blockers Serena Gray and Sabrina Starks were the tallest players on the court for Pitt last year, each of them standing at 6-foot-2.

Junior middle blocker Chiamaka Nwokolo said even with added height and new personnel at the net, the team won’t change their play style and will do what has worked best for them the past few years.

“I don’t think it’ll change anything,” Nwokolo said. “We’ll run our systems like always, but height always helps. We do have a lot of depth in the middle.”

For the first time since their defeat against Nebraska in the Final Four last December, the new-look Panthers took the floor against Ohio State for their first spring scrimmage of the offseason. The Buckeyes finished last season ranked No. 11 in the AVCA coaches’ poll, and lost in the Sweet Sixteen to Georgia Tech.

While the game was just a scrimmage with no rankings or standings implications, the matchup offered an opportunity for players to improve their position within the team for next season. Some players who hardly saw time on the court last year got significant playing time in the friendly, showing Fisher what he has to work with, particularly at the outside hitter position.

For the Panthers, all eyes were on Dalton, who made her first game-appearance ever for the Panthers against Ohio State. Standing at 6-foot-5, her presence on the court was clearly noticeable, both at the net and in the backcourt.

Dalton looked sharp overall in the scrimmage, and showed her versatility. She ended with eleven kills over four sets and notched nine block assists in the contest. The abbreviated final frame was her most prolific attacking-wise, as she tallied five kills on a .429 attack percentage.

As the stats indicated, Dalton shined brightest when she was aggressive at the net. She seemed to block especially well when paired with Gray or Nwokolo in the middle. With improved consistency and chemistry with the setters, she has all of the potential to be a force for the Panthers on the outside in the coming seasons.

Fisher said he was happy to see Dalton get live game action, not realizing how important it was to her to shake some of the dust off from not playing last season.

“It’s probably more important than I thought initially because she didn’t have a fall season,” Fisher said. “She did a really nice job on serve-receive this week, she’s been working hard on that, so we’re making progress.”

One of the more noticeable changes for the Panthers was at the libero position, where first-year Emmy Klika played almost every point. Last year’s starting libero, junior Ashley Browske, played mostly as a defensive specialist/setter, even going up for a few spikes while on the court.

Klika seemed to struggle last year after Fisher threw her into action against Nebraska last season. She appeared poised and vocal while notching a team-high 17 digs, seemingly taking advantage of the additional playing time on Saturday.

Nwokolo, more than anyone, showed the most improvement from last season. She was the most vocal on the court, sometimes being the only one talking on the court. Her enthusiasm was infectious and she had the stats to back it up, notching 10 kills and seven block assists in limited playing time.

After being surrounded by vocal leaders the past two seasons, Nwokolo said jumping into the role is natural for her and sometimes she will talk just to avoid silence on the court.

“I feel like I’ve always been a vocal person, but we also had a lot of other vocal and really good players on our team,” Nwokolo said. “Not that I would be drowned out, but now I just talk louder … I don’t like silence, so I just like to talk.”

Sophomore outside hitter Valeria Vazquez Gomez got significant playing time last season, especially in Lund’s absence, but showed improvement on attacks against the Buckeyes, pacing the Panthers with 13 kills. Sophomore outside hitter Cat Flood didn’t play as much as some other hitters, but showed athleticism and efficiency, notching six kills on .500 attacking.

While not of utmost importance to the players and coaches, the Panthers still managed to sweep the Buckeyes, taking all three sets by scores of 26-24, 25-22 and 26-24. To get some more work in, the two sides played a fourth set, which the Panthers also won, 19-17.

For Fisher and the players, playing in front of a packed Fitzgerald Field House gave them energy, providing a much different atmosphere than their closed practices. For Dalton, it just reaffirms the decision she made to come to Pitt in the first place.

“When I say I love it, I don’t say that lightly,” Dalton said. “The girls have been so welcoming, the coaches have just been so good, and I’ve been developing a lot … I can’t wait to keep getting better with this team.”

The Panthers will play one more spring scrimmage at home against the Michigan Wolverines at 1 p.m. on April 16 at the Field House.