Column | Pitt volleyball lands No. 8 in 2023 recruiting class, must revamp at middle blocker


Ethan Shulman | Staff Photographer

Senior libero Ashley Browske (4) cheers during Pitt volleyball’s game against Louisville on Oct. 23, 2022.

By Richie Smiechowski, Sports Editor

It’s hard to pinpoint a head coach across the NCAA volleyball landscape who’s found as much success in the transfer portal as Pitt’s very own, Dan Fisher. 

Of course, he’s a savant at developing players as well — just look at former players such as Kayla Lund and Chinaza Ndee and current players such as junior setter Rachel Fairbanks and junior libero Emmy Klika. But it’s safe to say that Pitt volleyball doesn’t achieve back-to-back Final Fours without their transfer stars. 

Fisher’s team was already loaded with All-American talent headed into the 2021 season, but he still saw room for improvement, recruiting Missouri outside hitter Leketor Member-Meneh and Penn State middle blocker Serena Gray. Despite already having impressive resumes going into their first seasons with the Panthers, the two players put together stellar years, each bringing home All-American honors and playing massive roles in Pitt’s first-ever Final Four run.

Last season, the Panthers looked poised for a rebuilding year after losing program mainstays Lund and Ndee while Member-Meneh moved onto professional volleyball in Italy. But again, he utilized the transfer portal and recruited graduate student right side hitter Courtney Buzzerio and sophomore outside hitter Julianna Dalton. 

The two had fantastic years, but Buzzerio in particular was a revelation for the Panthers, earning first-team All-American honors and guiding Pitt to its second consecutive Final Four in her lone season with the team. 

While the 2023 season is still months away, the transfer portal is already alive and thriving, with several All-Americans already finding new homes within weeks of the 2022 season’s conclusion. 

It’s inevitable in college sports that star players will graduate and teams must find adequate replacements for them — but once again, the Panthers’ losses leave gaping holes in their lineup. It’s once again time for Fisher to address these spots and build a competitive roster. 

The reality of winning and having tournament success year-after-year is increased expectations from your fans — for Fisher and Pitt volleyball, those expectations are as lofty as ever. Here’s an analysis of the program’s returners, recruits and areas of need as they progress through the 2023 offseason. 

Key Losses

While Pitt’s departing players from last season’s team might not seem as impactful as losing Lund, Ndee and Member-Meneh, they might actually have a similar impact on the team. 

The most glaring departure is Buzzerio, who needs no further introduction. In her one year with the Panthers she brought pure dominance to the right side of Pitt’s attack. At 6 feet, 5 inches, she was a force, quite simply overpowering opposing blocks and imposing her will on defenses, especially in close games. 

Statistically, Buzzerio stood head and shoulders above her teammates attack-wise, recording a team high 461 kills with a remarkable .320 hitting percentage. In terms of both production and presence, replacing her is a near-impossible task. 

In the middle, the Panthers suffered two devastating losses in Gray and former middle blocker Chiamaka Nwokolo. The two blockers were mainstays in the lineup, but were most valuable in their leadership abilities. When the team hit lulls in a match, both Gray and Nwokolo often took the role of vocal leader, boosting their teammates morale when they needed it most. 

Last season, Gray had a career year for the Panthers, earning first-team All-American honors and leading the team with 131 blocks. In addition to her defensive abilities, she was stellar offensively, recording 248 kills and 26 aces. Nwokolo also reached triple digit blocks, notching 105 on the season.

Losing two first-team All-Americans in one year is both a blessing and a curse — on one hand, it shows that the program is undoubtedly in the upper echelon of college programs, recruiting and developing high-level talent. It shows potential recruits that they will have success and improve as a player at Pitt and under Fisher.

On the other hand, they lost two first-team All-Americans. Replacing them doesn’t happen overnight. 

Returning Players

Sure, Pitt lost some of its best players in program history to graduation this year — but that doesn’t mean it lost everything. 

Headlining the core of returning players are the setters — Fairbanks and graduate student Alexis Akeo. Last year, the best passing teams went the furthest in the tournament, and the Panthers were no exception, often playing at their best with two setters in Fisher’s 6-2 system. 

Fairbanks is one of the most exciting players in the country — she can play every rotation, setting a hitter on one play and attacking from the right side on the next. Her unpredictability is a weapon for the Panthers, always creating opportunities for her teammates. 

Attacking-wise, Pitt returns outside hitters Dalton and senior Valeria Vazquez Gomez. Like Fairbanks, Dalton can do a bit of everything. She’s always playing above the net, frequently blocking and attacking from the left side but also excels defensively in the back row. 

Her counterpart Vazquez Gomez had a career year in 2022, earning second-team All-American honors after catching fire late in the season. As of now, she’s the Panthers’ most promising weapon offensively, as she ranked second on the team with 359 kills last year. 

The Panthers also return senior outside hitter Cat Flood, who should see an increased role in 2023. Regardless of how much time she spends on the floor, Flood is a weapon on serve, posting 16 aces with a remarkable 1.45 ace-to-error ratio. 

Defensively, the Panthers boast rising talent with both junior libero Emmy Klika and sophomore middle blocker Rachel Jepsen. Klika took a huge step forward last season, taking over as starting libero late in the season and showing glimpses of her potential. She was crucial on serve-receive in the postseason and is only getting better. 

Jepsen didn’t see much time on the floor due to the talent in front of her at middle blocker, but she has a very high ceiling. She’s physically imposing, standing at 6 feet, 4 inches, and was a top-100 recruit out of high school. Replacing someone like Gray is incredibly difficult — but Jepsen is a potential star in the making. 

Recruits and Areas of Need

Fisher’s 2023 high school recruiting class is the best in program history. Ranked No. 8 in the country by, the Panthers boast four top-100 recruits, three of whom are hitters.

Right side hitter Olivia Babcock and outside hitter Torrey Stafford impressed at the Under Armour All-American game, both winning MVP of their respective teams. Stafford is the No. 7 ranked player in the country, and Babcock is ranked No. 35 nationally.

Pitt’s other two recruits are outside hitter Blaire Bayless, who’s the No. 44 ranked recruit, and setter Haiti Tautua’a, who’s ranked No. 66. Bayless also played in the All-American game, and Tautua’a is the No. 1 ranked player in Hawaii.

Fisher’s class is incredibly deep, and while the players might not produce right away, they are a sure sign that the program is still on an upward trajectory. But looking at the current situation, the Panthers still have several areas of need that they must address in the transfer portal if they want to compete for a national championship this season. 

They addressed one of their needs in the portal on Monday, when former Virginia Tech libero/defensive specialist Logan Mosley announced her commitment to Pitt. The senior has over 1,000 career digs and provides Fisher with much needed depth defensively. At the very least, she will compete with Klika for the starting spot while providing a spark on both sides of the serve-receive. 

The team’s biggest current need is at middle blocker. They have Jepsen, and she has incredible potential, but at the very least they need one more established player for depth. Last season, the Panthers had four middle blockers on their roster — they can’t go into this season with just one. 

While the incoming recruits provide a huge boost to the offense, an experienced hitter certainly wouldn’t hurt. A piece similar to Buzzerio or Member-Meneh would provide a level of maturity and poise to a very young team that won’t always know how to react in high-pressure situations. 

There’s still plenty of offseason left for Fisher and his staff to make their mark on the transfer portal for the third season in a row — if they can add two or three talented players with high-level experience, there’s nothing holding this team back from competing for National Championships next year and beyond.