For the second consecutive year, the first round of the NCAA volleyball tournament made its way to Pittsburgh, as No. 2 Pitt hosted No. 7 BYU, JMU and Colgate at the Petersen Events Center.
Just a few minutes after BYU knocked off JMU in its first-round matchup, the Panthers once again got off to a dream start, sweeping the Raiders in a dominant first-round performance and winning each set by nine points or more.
Despite being clearly outmatched on paper, the Raiders started off strong against their highly ranked opponent, matching the Panthers point for point early in the first. Their strong defense, combined with small mistakes from the Panthers, kept Colgate within one for nearly half of the set.
Tied at nine, the Panthers found their rhythm and went on their first run of the match, scoring three in a row and forcing the Raiders to call their first timeout of the set. Colgate took one point back following the timeout but Pitt imposed their will otherwise, rocketing off six points in a row thanks to stellar back-row defense from graduate student outside hitter Cam Ennis and sophomore libero Emmy Klika.
Down 18-10, Colgate capitalized on two errors from Pitt, bringing the score back within five, But a late three-point swing from its opponent effectively put the set out of reach. The Panthers cruised down the stretch, logging a 25-16 first-set victory behind seven kills on .500 hitting from junior outside hitter Valeria Vazquez Gomez.
Vazquez Gomez is on a tear, and after recently being named ACC player of the week, she picked up right where she left off, leading the Panthers on offense against Colgate. She said her confidence has skyrocketed down the stretch this season, always looking toward the next point.
“My self-talk has gotten better, I think, from last year to this year and then over the past couple of weeks,” Vazquez Gomez said. “Not focusing on my past errors, but like what can I do to improve for the next match.”
The Panthers continued their late dominance into the second set, taking the first three points on two kills and a Raider error. Pitt ripped off another three-point swing a few points later, extending its advantage to four points.
While they didn’t play perfect volleyball, the Panthers clearly outmatched Colgate in just about every aspect of the game, thriving under head coach Dan Fisher’s more defense-minded lineup. Sophomore outside hitter Julianna Dalton didn’t see the floor against the Raiders despite playing every game for the Panthers this season. Fisher said the personnel changes were mostly due to injuries and was happy with the way that Ennis stepped into her role as outside hitter.
“With the end of the year, like a lot of people we’re dealing with kids that are banged up,” Fisher said. “We’re trying to make sure we’re keeping our kids as fresh as we can. Cam came here to be an outside hitter, but that’s why we recruited her, you can see she’s got a great arm… We like our team with her or with Julianna on the court.”
Up 14-10, the Panthers were in complete control of the set, playing with confidence and burying the Raiders with their second six-point swing of the match. Vazquez Gomez continued her dominance on the outside in the second, but graduate student outside hitter Courtney Buzzerio’s right arm came alive as well, bringing her kill total to seven for the match on .500 hitting. Junior middle blocker Chiamaka Nwokolo finished the job for the Panthers, notching consecutive kills on the final two points of the frame as Pitt cruised to a 25-14 second set victory.
According to Buzzerio, having players such as Vazquez Gomez and Ennis around her playing at such a high level allows her to be more aggressive and play at her best as well.
“It gives me the confidence to know that I can keep swinging and being aggressive,” Buzzerio said. “If I don’t have my best game or I’m not producing as well as I have been in the past, I know I have confidence in my teammates.”
Colgate managed to stay close with the sizzling Panthers at the beginning of the third set, even riding its second three-point swing to their second lead of the match at 5-4. From there, the Raiders lost all their momentum, committing four attack errors amid an eight-point run from the Panthers.
The Panthers cruised for the rest of the set, asserting dominance over their unranked opponent and eventually opening up their lead to double digits. Graduate student middle blocker Serena Gray put on a tremendous display serving late in the frame, notching three consecutive aces en route to a dominant 25-14 third-set victory from the Panthers.
Pitt is set to follow up their sweep with a second-round matchup against No. 7 BYU Saturday night at 7 p.m. at the Petersen Events Center. Fans can stream the game on ESPN+. The two sides already squared off earlier this season, with the Panthers winning 3-1 in Utah.
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