Preview | Pitt vs. Louisville in the battle for both national and ACC supremacy


Ethan Shulman | Staff Photographer

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

By Richie Smiechowski, Sports Editor

Pitt vs. Louisville in the final four — the matchup ACC volleyball fans have dreamed about all season. The two sides have faced off twice already this year and this third contest marks the biggest game in conference history. 

Considering their histories, what exactly is on the line tonight?

Well for starters, regardless of who comes out victorious, ACC volleyball is the real winner. Since the Panthers and the Cardinals vaunted themselves to national supremacy over the past few years, the ACC has slowly gained credibility from other volleyball powers such as the Big Ten and Pac-12. 

Last year Pitt and Louisville both made it to the Final Four but lost to Nebraska and Wisconsin, respectively, signifying the teams were close to the top, but not quite there yet. Now, just one year later, both teams are back and beat both Wisconsin and Nebraska along the way. And this time, the ACC is guaranteed its first National Championship appearance ever. 

For each of the respective programs, a National Championship appearance is a realization that they’ve made it to volleyball’s highest peak after years of development and gradual improvement. It’s the natural next step in each team’s progression to the top and both teams are as hungry as ever to reach the next milestone. 

And of course, doing it against their biggest conference rival will only make it that much sweeter. You could also view this as the true conference title game considering Pitt and Louisville shared title honors this season. 

So yeah, you could say there’s quite a bit on the line for both Pitt and Louisville — two teams with a whole lot to prove.

The Panthers are coming off arguably their biggest win in program history after upsetting No. 1 Wisconsin in Madison in five sets. In both of their last two wins, they were outhit, out-dug and out-blocked, yet seemed in control for most of both wins. 

In lieu of filling up the scoresheet, Pitt relied on unpredictability and strong, timely defense and passing to frustrate its opponents into making mistakes. Against Florida, the Panthers jumped out in front early and gave themselves a 2-0 cushion, allowing for one bad set. But against Wisconsin, the Panthers overcame a heartbreaking first set loss and won the next two sets. They showed their resilience again deep into the fifth set, winning three straight points after being down 13-12 and moving on to the Final Four. 

Offensively the Panthers are spectacular at spreading the wealth around the floor, especially in their tournament games. For most of the season, the offense ran through graduate student right side hitter Courtney Buzzerio. To an extent it still does, but recently head coach Dan Fisher appears to have changed strategies, spreading the wealth and attacking from both sides regardless of rotation. 

One of the main reasons the Panthers can rely on unpredictability is because of sophomore setter Rachel Fairbanks ability to play every rotation. She attacks like a premier hitter, is an outstanding setter and plays solid defense with a strong serve to boot. She’s the kind of player defenses can’t prepare for, filling up the scoresheet in every possible way.

Junior outside hitter Valeria Vazquez Gomez has stepped up massively for the Panthers over the past few weeks, playing a critical role in attack and in the service game. While she provided a massive boost offensively for Pitt, Wisconsin targeted her heavily in the back row and she appeared to struggle a bit defensively. It’s a weakness that Louisville will inevitably try to capitalize on, but defense as a whole hasn’t been much of an issue for the Panthers. 

As a team, the Panthers set a program tournament record for digs in a match with 88. Sophomore libero Emmy Klika leads Pitt’s back row defense, and it appears as though teams are actively avoiding hitting in her direction. At the net, middle blockers graduate student Serena Gray and senior Chiamaka Nwokolo are stout, forcing defenses to get creative and also make mistakes in their attack. 

Perhaps the biggest x-factor for the Panthers against Louisville is graduate student outside hitter Cam Ennis. She’s experienced a massive uptick in playing time thanks to a lingering injury to sophomore outside hitter Julianna Dalton and has been solid in her new role. She’s not as powerful as the rest of Pitt’s attack, but she came up with a few crucial points against Wisconsin in key moments. The Panthers won’t have to rely on her, but if she can provide the same level of production she did against Louisville and Florida, it takes a significant burden off of the rest of the hitters. 

On the other side of the court, Louisville is playing its best volleyball of the season at the perfect time. As a team, they show almost no weaknesses with strong hitters, a strong middle and stout back row defense. 

For most of the season, the Cardinals offense has run through graduate student outside hitter Claire Chausse and she’s been stellar, winning ACC player of the year and dominating Pitt in their second regular season matchup. 

Despite Chausse’s strength she might not even be the best hitter on her own team. Junior outside hitter Anna DeBeer missed most of the season with an injury and played a bit down the stretch of the regular season in a limited capacity. 

But now she’s back, fully healthy, and showing why she’s one of the country’s premier offensive players. If Chausse and DeBeer are both on their game, it makes Pitt’s job incredibly difficult. Add in solid performances from senior middle blocker Amaya Tilman and senior opposite Aiko Jones, and the Panthers might not stand a chance. 

Defensively, the Cardinals boast one of the most underrated liberos in the country in sophomore Elena Scott. She’s a rock on the back row, seemingly fooled by nothing and is excellent on serve return. Louisville also has the ACC setter of the year in graduate student Raquel Lazaro. 

In short, when Louisville is on, there’s no stopping them. 

In their two matches this season, Louisville has overall looked like the stronger team despite a great showing from Pitt in its first matchup. The second contest was all Cardinals, as they quickly dismantled the Panthers in three abysmal sets. 

But in the NCAA tournament, the past doesn’t matter much. Tonight, the slate is wiped clean and I expect a dogfight to the very end. I predict the Panthers will pull off the unthinkable for the second straight game, knocking off the surging Cardinals and advancing to their first ever National Championship in five sets.