Kellen Petrone: Unfinished volleyball business in Pittsburgh

Written by Richie Smiechowski
Photos by Jonathan Guo
April 07, 2023

Sitting on Pitt’s sideline every volleyball game day, Kellen Petrone almost never cracks a smile. The associate head coach tightly grips a binder or notebook filled to the brim with game notes, stats and scouting reports.

He’ll get up every few points with comments directed usually at Pitt’s setters — but for the most part, he sits on the edge of his seat with his eyes locked on the match, analyzing his team with the eyes of a former player. 

Off the court, Petrone’s demeanor is calm — laid-back but still focused, sometimes even stoic. But according to his former player and now assistant coach Kamalani Akeo, he takes his seriousness to a new level between the lines. 

“In game, Kellen is really intense,” Akeo said. “We say he likes to worry productively, always preparing us for the worst-case scenario. We know that, no matter what happens in a match or on a road trip, Kellen will be ready for it and prepared to help us through it.”

As the official “team worrier,” Petrone’s close attention to detail and dedication to the program has made him an asset to Pitt volleyball since Dan Fisher hired him in 2014 — just one year after Fisher took the reins as head coach. 

“One of the things that stood out the most when I hired him was his interpersonal skills, but after years of coaching with him I can say his biggest strength is his curiosity,” Fisher said. “As good as he is, he is curious and wants to keep improving…I don’t think he has any glaring weaknesses in his skill set.”

Petrone’s background is a bit different than most coaches in the NCAA, considering he never actually played Division I college volleyball. He’s a Pittsburgh lifer, getting his start in volleyball as first team All-WPIAL selection at Pittsburgh Central Catholic in 2004

Instead of pursuing collegiate volleyball, Petrone elected to stay home and attend Duquesne University, but the volleyball bug wouldn’t go away. He founded the school’s club volleyball team and played on it all four years in college, launching his unlikely career in coaching as a student assistant for the women’s varsity team. 

“I always joke that I had three majors at Duquesne,” Petrone said. “Even as a marketing and entrepreneurship major, I spent probably more time in the gym either playing or coaching than I did in class… Right away when I started coaching, I was lucky to coach a high school team at Fox Chapel that was in the state championship that first year. I just got the bug really early.”

Jonathan Guo | Staff Photographer

After coaching both Fox Chapel High School and Moon Area High School while he was still enrolled at Duquesne, Petrone immediately earned an assistant coaching opportunity at Robert Morris in 2009, just one year after his graduation. Thrown into the fire at just 22 years old, Petrone gained valuable experience as interim head coach for the team amid a fluid coaching situation.

Petrone’s successful tenure earned him his first coaching job outside of the Pittsburgh area at UNC Asheville in 2010. While his stint with the Bulldogs lasted just two years, Petrone learned even more about the nuances of coaching, briefly taking over as interim head coach for the second time in his young career. 

“I think that the more successful assistant coaches treat the program as if it’s their own,” Petrone said. “I think the decision making and seeing consequences of your actions is a pretty important lesson to learn early.”

In the year between Asheville and his return to coaching in Pittsburgh, Petrone took what he learned in coaching and applied his business education background into a startup called StatEasy. Even in his break from volleyball, he still couldn’t get away, often pairing video and stats for volleyball teams while still coaching at the club level in his free time. 

By then, though, Petrone had garnered a reputation as being one of the area's best club coaches, becoming a target for Fisher, who was still in the early stages of building his staff. 

The Pitt head coach first reached out to Petrone in 2014, asking him to start as a volunteer coach. With an established job and his wedding just three months away, he initially shied away. 

But after going to one of Fisher’s practices, Petrone quickly changed his mind. 

“I went to a practice and I was like, I think something really special could happen here,” Petrone said. “So I quit my job three months before my wedding with my wife’s blessing, and it turns out I was right.”

Petrone didn’t volunteer for long before Fisher and Pitt moved him into a paid position. He started his career with the Panthers as the team’s Director of Operations before officially moving into an assistant coaching role a year later. 

With Petrone’s influence on the offensive side of the game, the Panthers surged in 2016, earning their first NCAA tournament berth in 12 years and laying the groundwork for the next few years of success. On an individual level, he guided Akeo to ACC Setter of the Year honors and helped her become one of the best setters in program history. 

Now an assistant coach with the Panthers, Akeo is going on her eighth year alongside Petrone. She’s on a similar career trajectory to her former coach, even starting her post-playing career as director of operations. 

“We’ve almost been at Pitt for the same amount of time, I think he actually got here a year before I started as a player,” Akeo said. “Looking back at it now, it’s really cool because we kind of went on the same coaching path, going from a player to Director of Operations to now an assistant coach. He’s been a great mentor to me and I’m grateful to be able to continue to learn from him.”

As a coach, Petrone wears two hats. There’s the one everyone sees — the offensive strategist who prepares meticulously for every opponent and puts his game plan into action on the sidelines alongside Fisher and Akeo. 

Then, there’s his recruiting coordinator hat. In the offseason, away from the public eye, Petrone works tirelessly every day prospecting high school players and current college players in the transfer portal. 

“Kellen and Dan probably put in the most for recruiting, I couldn’t even express how many players and how much film they watch,” Akeo said. “I know Kellen will go home and answer hundreds of emails every day…Him and Dan are really innovative in the way they recruit.”

According to Petrone, there are key qualities that make up a great recruiter — building relationships and being genuine toward prospective players and their families are at the top of the list.

“A good recruiter has an incredible work ethic, is very organized and has a personality that attracts people to them,” Petrone said. “I do think a good recruiter actually cares about people, so I think sometimes young people in the role will be a little too transactional.”

Jonathan Guo | Staff Photographer

Even for a coach that has these recruiting skills, program culture and aspirations are also massively important. According to Petrone, that’s what makes Pitt such an enticing spot for players. 

“In terms of recruiting here at Pitt, I just really believe in the product we’re selling and the people we’re selling and that makes my job really easy,” Petrone said. “It’s not like I’m a used car salesman who’s just trying to get someone to buy my car. I just really believe in what we’re doing and know that they’ll have a genuine experience here where they can grow athletically and academically.”

So far, Petrone and Fisher are having their best recruiting cycle to date — their 2023 class of high school commitments is ranked No. 8 in the country by According to Akeo, it’s no surprise that their success increases year over year. 

“Dan and Kellen are always looking to do something new.” Akeo said. “They are always looking for that competitive edge both on the court and in recruiting and that’s a big reason why this program has gone through such a big jump over their tenure. They’re just never satisfied with what everyone else is doing or what worked for them last year. Recruiting is always changing and their ability to adapt sets them apart from a lot of hard working coaches.”

Looking toward the future, Petrone isn’t sure what’s still in store for him in volleyball. He realizes that he’s in a great spot and enjoys both the recruiting and coaching elements of his job at Pitt — but like any great assistant coach, he has greater aspirations. 

“I’m having another kid in May, and my family’s growing so I do want some stability for them,” Petrone said. “My wife has a great job but yeah, of course I want to be a head coach and be able to take what I’ve learned here and at the other programs and implement it in the way that I want to. In terms of when or where I don’t know yet — but I do have aspirations.”

But until then, Petrone is fully invested into Pitt volleyball for as long as his journey allows. 

While he works on building next year's class, he can look around his office and see countless mementos signifying his success at Pitt. A collection of hats from each of the Panther’s ACC championships sits above his desk, while two miniature NCAA region champion trophies rest atop a filing cabinet next to a miniature disc golf basket — one of his hobbies away from the court. 

“I do feel like there is a sense of unfinished business here,” Petrone said. “Here I am entering year 10 as the associate head coach, and now we feel that the only goal that’s left is for us to win a national championship.”