Preview | Pitt and Louisville set for most important matchup in ACC volleyball history


Ethan Shulman | Staff Photographer

Pitt volleyball players huddle up during a game against NC State on Sept. 25.

By Richie Smiechowski, Assistant Sports Editor

For those who haven’t extensively followed ACC volleyball since 2017, the conference is similar to a seesaw.

On one side of the seesaw is Louisville — the 2020 and 2021 ACC champions and 2021 Final Four participants are once again stellar in 2022. Currently ranked No. 2 in the AVCA coaches poll, the Cardinals are off to an 8-0 start in ACC play and have just one loss overall on the year.

But forget their success in ACC play this season — the Cardinals haven’t lost a conference game in nearly two years.

Pitt occupies the other side of the seesaw. The Panthers are ranked No. 8 nationally and are also off to a perfect 8-0 start in ACC play. They also accompanied Louisville at the Final Four, marking the first time that two ACC teams made it to the national semifinal in the same season.

From 2017-19, Pitt was on top of the conference, notching three consecutive ACC titles and looking down at Louisville on the other side. It goes without saying that since 2020 Louisville took control and rocketed to the top of the hypothetical ACC seesaw.

Of course, there are other teams who’ve tried to dethrone the champions — namely No. 10 Georgia Tech the past two seasons. But make no mistake — Pitt and Louisville are the undisputed kingpins of ACC volleyball.   

For the first time this season, the two sides will face off Sunday afternoon at Fitzgerald Fieldhouse — coincidentally two years from the date of Louisville’s last ACC defeat, which was against Pitt.

The two sides are accustomed to playing high stakes matches against each other. Last year, both teams were ranked in the top five each time they played each other. 

Although Pitt is just outside of the top five for this year’s game, Sunday’s match isn’t just the most important one in their rivalry’s history — it might be the most important match in ACC history.

Trust me, I know it’s a boisterous claim, but for a regular-season ACC volleyball game, there’s never been more on the line between better teams. It’s the first time ever that two reigning national semifinalists have faced off in ACC conference play, and both teams have similar aspirations for this season.

Apart from the historical relevance, the two sides are putting their perfect conference records on the line. The winning side will be a heavy favorite to go on and win the ACC outright and subsequently position themselves as a top-four seed come tournament time.

The only thing distinguishing the two sides is Louisville’s 36-game ACC winning streak, which will almost certainly be at 37 come gametime. There’s no doubt they have pride in that streak and will do anything they can to extend it past the two-year mark.

For the Cardinals head coach Dani Busboom Kelly, their streak is grounded in a relentless pursuit of perfection. They play nearly flawless volleyball, especially on offense where they boast the second-best hitting percentage in the NCAA at .312. They also excel at the net with a remarkable 2.97 blocks per set — good for third best in the country.

When they win, they win swiftly and with relative ease. They’ve dropped just three sets to ACC opponents this year, with two of them coming in their last two matches. Despite beating Virginia Tech handily on the scoresheet, Busboom Kelly had surprisingly strong words following the loss.

“I’d say this is the worst we’ve been all season,” Busboom Kelly said in an interview with “We’re trying to build something not only for ourselves, but for this city and the volleyball community here. So I hate playing like this, especially at home.”

Keep in mind, she said this about her team after a win. The Cardinals star senior opposite Aiko Jones voiced similar concerns to her coach.

“This was a win that feels like a loss,” Jones said. “We didn’t leave the game feeling proud of how we played.”

Despite the “hard loss,” the Cardinals have a lot working against them. They’re playing without their All-American junior outside hitter Anna DeBeer, saw the arguably best setter in the country in Tori Dilfer graduate, and still aren’t satisfied with anything less than a perfect performance.

Even without the Cardinals being at their best, the Panthers will need to play spotless volleyball to send a message to the NCAA. And they can play tremendous volleyball — they showed their potential against Ohio State earlier this season, dominating the No. 5 Buckeyes and winning in straight sets. They also have two other wins against top-ten teams and only seem to be getting better as the season progresses.

In order to win, the Panthers need to find ways to counteract Louisville’s biggest strength — their block. Luckily for Pitt, graduate student right side hitter Courtney Buzzerio is on a tear, devastating defenses with efficient, powerful attacks. She’s led the Panthers in kills for the past 12 matches and is the reigning ACC player of the week.

Her main job is to get as many balls as she can past Louisville senior middle blocker Amaya Tillman, the anchor of the Cardinals block. Pitt middle blockers senior Chiamaka Nwokolo and graduate student Serena Gray need to match Louisville’s net presence, keying in on Cardinal graduate student outside hitter Claire Chaussee who leads the team with 234 kills.

Pitt head coach Dan Fisher will have his players ready for Sunday, there’s no doubting that. How the Panther’s fare relies solely on how long they can prolong their hot streaks and if they can avoid the deep lulls that tend to plague them in big-time matches.

My prediction is the Panthers will finally exorcise their demons against the Cardinals, ending their foe’s 37-game ACC winning streak and pulling out a five-set victory in front of a raucous home crowd. Courtney Buzzerio will end around the 30-kill mark, and junior outside hitter Valeria Vazquez Gomez will have yet another breakout performance, tallying over 20 kills as well.

This game isn’t just a monumental one for Pitt and Louisville — it’s a litmus test for the strength of ACC volleyball. On a national stage, NCAA volleyball fans around the country will once again see that the conference can compete for a national title, and is only getting closer with every passing year.

Sunday’s match starts at 1 p.m. and will air on ESPNU.