Preview | Pitt volleyball set to open ACC Play, looks to build upon promising start


Hannah Wilson | Senior Staff Photographer

Pitt players celebrate during a game against American University at the Fitzgerald Field House on Sept. 9.

By David Scott, Staff Writer

Pitt volleyball has put on a show in their Oakland homestand, winning four of their five matches so far. Each of the Panthers’ wins ended in just three sets, most recently taking down No. 5 Ohio State in dominating fashion. This stretch of stellar performances has the No. 10 Panthers at 9-2 and tied for third in the ACC heading into their first conference matches of the year.

The Panthers will close out their homestand with matches against North Carolina and North Carolina State, their first two ACC opponents of the year. North Carolina sits at 8-3 this year, with two of their three losses coming in away matches. North Carolina State is 6-5 so far, and have yet to win an away game this season.

Pitt volleyball was strong in ACC play last year, going 15-3, which was second only to Louisville’s undefeated ACC record. They only took losses to Louisville and Georgia Tech in conference play.

The Panthers have put on a strong display to start the 2022 season, but are struggling compared to last season, when they won fifteen games before their first loss. They are top four in the ACC in hitting percentage, assists, kills and blocks. The roster is deep, and every Panther who steps onto the court is making an impact on the team’s success.

Reigning ACC player of the week graduate right side hitter Courtney Buzzerio is the star of the Panthers offense. She leads the team in points, points per set, kills and kills per set. Her .364 hitting percentage is good for seventh in the ACC and second among Pitt players. She’s also made an impact on defense, putting down 29 blocks. Buzzerio had a successful four-year career at Iowa before transferring to Pitt.

Sophomore outside hitter Julianna Dalton anchors the team on both sides of the game. On offense, Dalton has 116 points and 98 kills, both third-best on the roster. On defense, she has 62 digs and 21 blocks. Dalton was named to the All-Pac 12 freshman team in her only year outside of Pittsburgh at Washington State.

Sophomore setter Rachel Fairbanks is the team’s “Swiss Army knife.” Her 100 digs are second on the team, and she’s also tallied 11 blocks. Against Texas A&M in August she dropped a triple double with 13 kills, 15 assists and 12 digs. For a setter, her 51 kills are astronomical, a skillset that cemented her place on team USA this summer.

At the net, graduate middle blocker Serena Gray leads the Pitt defense. Her 34 blocks are good for second on the team. On the offensive side, she also tallied 99 points and 72 kills, which holds up with the offensive leaders of the team. She played three years at Penn State before joining the Panthers as a senior for their Final Four campaign. She was a multi-time All-American with the Nittany Lions and was an all-ACC player last year.

Senior middle blocker Chiamaka Nwokolo is once again a rock on defense for the Panthers. She has 39 blocks on the season, enough for an impressive 1.11 blocks per set. She’s also put up 61 points and 86 assists, combining for an incredibly well rounded season. On top of her performances on the court, she is transforming into a team leader in her fourth year with the Panthers.

Rachel Jepsen is taking advantage of her playing time during her freshman season. Her height is helping to bolster an already strong middle of the court. In her three games she has seven kills and six blocks, showing her promise as a consistent force for the Panthers’ future.

Rounding out the Panther attack is experienced outside hitter Valeria Vazquez Gomez. The redshirt sophomore showed flashes of brilliance last year, punctuated by a 14-kill performance against No. 14 Georgia Tech. She is crucial to Pitt’s service game, often notching aces in critical moments for the team. As one of the Panthers most experienced players, she is key to the team’s cohesiveness.

These key players have combined to create an impressive Panthers team, but the question looms if this team is capable of repeating its Final Four appearance from last year. With ACC play set to begin, Pitt needs to hang with its top rivals Louisville and Georgia Tech and find ways to win against them to maintain its caliber from last year.

For Georgia Tech, outside hitter Julia Bergmann is possibly the best player in the country. She leads the NCAA in kills per set and points per set. She has led the Yellow Jackets to a 7-2 record so far on the season. Pitt and Georgia Tech will face off in Atlanta on Oct. 9.

Louisville doesn’t have an individual standout like Georgia Tech does, but it doesn’t matter because they are stacked through their entire roster. The Cardinals are at the top of the ACC year after year and are consistently a stalwart in the NCAA tournament. They are 9-1 and will come to Oakland to play the Panthers on Oct. 23.

With ACC play looming and more than 30 matches left to play, the Panthers are playing well, but are still a few notches below where they started last season. They have swept opponents in seven of their 11 matches and will look to continue that pace against their ACC opponents, but already are on pace to double the losses they had last year.