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Opinion | I graduate in two weeks — a thank you to my best friend
Opinion | I graduate in two weeks — a thank you to my best friend
By Nada Abdulaziz, Staff Writer • 12:57 am

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Opinion | I graduate in two weeks — a thank you to my best friend
Opinion | I graduate in two weeks — a thank you to my best friend
By Nada Abdulaziz, Staff Writer • 12:57 am

Feature | Pitt volleyball finds ways to improve in 2023

Pitt+volleyball+cheers+following+a+point+in+the+Fitzgerald+Field+House+during+their+game+against+Louisville+on+Saturday.
Hannah Levine | Staff Photographer
Pitt volleyball cheers following a point in the Fitzgerald Field House during their game against Louisville on Saturday.

This season, Pitt volleyball head coach Dan Fisher brought in a roster that is full of first-years, transfers and veterans to replace the program’s 2022 Final Four team in hopes of winning the Panthers’ first National Championship.

Graduate student middle blocker Chiamaka Nwokolo believes the 2023 Pitt roster is a perfect mix of first-years, transfers and returners.

“Our team just has like a perfect balance of newcomers and veterans,” Nwokolo said. “The newcomers bring this vibrant liveliness and newness, and the veterans, like people who have been here — Rachel, Emmy, Valeria and all of us — bring this mature poise, like I’ve been here before. And it’s just a perfect mixture. We feed off of each other very well. I learn from them, they learn from us. It’s a very good balanced relationship.”

Both the newcomers and veterans have played key roles for the Panthers in maintaining the Final Four talent in 2023. 

Tasked with replacing All-American right-side hitter Courtney Buzzerio, first-year right-side hitter Olivia Babcock filled in a role that seemed near impossible to make up for.. But as a first-year, Babcock comfortably stepped into the role. 

In 2022, Buzzerio led the Panthers in points with 538.0 and ended up becoming a First-Team All-American. In 2023, Babcock boasted the exact same feats. She led Pitt in points with 519.5 and earned the honors of First-Team All-American and AVCA Freshman of the Year.

First-year outside hitter Torrey Stafford also stepped up to fill in a big role, as she replaced redshirt senior Valeria Vazquez Gomez as the team’s primary outside hitter.

As a senior in 2022, Vazquez Gomez had 405.5 points and wound up as a Second-Team All-American. In 2023, Stafford exceeded Vazquez Gomez’s 2022 numbers, earning ten more points and a higher hitting percentage. But still, Stafford only earned Third-Team All-American honors.

To Nwokolo, the first-years maintaining, if not exceeding, the 2022 numbers is because they already have the correct mindset.

“They already have that dog in them,” Nwokolo said. “They have the personality. They don’t play like they’re freshmen. They know what to do. We’ve been in a lot of big moments this year.”

Junior setter Rachel Fairbanks also appreciates the personalities and abilities that the first-years bring.

The freshmen as people are great people,” Fairbanks said after a win against Boston College. “They just bring different personalities to the team. Then as players, they are legit, so it’s very nice having so many options and knowing whichever option I set will do great.”

Graduate student middle blocker Emma Monks is another newcomer who has excelled in her role of replacing Final Four talent. 

In 2022, graduate student middle blocker Serena Gray was dominant offensively for the Panthers with 248 kills and a hitting percentage of .396. Monks doesn’t bring the same offensive firepower, but the Michigan State transfer more than makes up for it defensively with her 1.57 blocks per set, which is good for fourth in the nation and has a total of 165.0 blocks in 2023. Monks domination at the net earned her an Honorable Mention All-American honors.

The veterans for Pitt, meanwhile, have only improved and are more efficient in 2023.

Vazquez Gomez’s usage in 2023 has gone down since 2022, but her efficiency is way up from last season. The outside hitter has 10 more service aces with only one more service error than last season. She is also hitting .019 percent better than last season. In the Elite Eight, Vazquez Gomez was targeted 22 times in serve receive and didn’t make a single error, which is the perfect calming veteran presence every team needs.

Nwokolo has improved in every possible category in 2023. The Columbus, Ohio native has improved in hitting percentage, kills per set, blocks per set and digs per set. In the past three NCAA Tournament games, Nwokolo has hit .500 or better in each match while tallying at least six kills.

Junior libero Emmy Klika has frustrated opponent attackers throughout 2023 and has improved greatly since 2022. Klika didn’t initially start 2022 as a libero, but was moved into the position later in the season, and stayed there in 2023. Klika averages 1.19 more digs per set than last season, and has greatly improved in covering off the block. This earned the libero Honorable Mention All-American honors.  

Fairbanks was both a right-side hitter and setter in 2022, with Pitt running a 6-2, but now is the full-time setter in Pitt’s 5-1 rotation. Although Fairbanks enjoys playing as both a setter and right-side hitter, she has excelled in her full-time setter role. The Tustin, California native has led the Panthers to a hitting percentage of .308 — good for third best in the nation — and has tallied a total of 904 assists on the season. This helped Fairbanks earn First-Team All-American Honors. 

Since the Panthers moved to a 5-1 in 2023, graduate student setter Lexis Akeo lost her role as a starting setter, but she still plays a major role in the Panthers’ success. When the Panthers were down 2-0 to Louisville in the Elite Eight, Fairbanks said Akeo was there helping Pitt get fired up to flip the switch.

The veterans on Pitt’s roster also have experienced the Final Four and will know what happens during a national semifinal. 

“What separates this year is we just have a lot of girls like Chia,” Fisher said. “Elite Eight, Final Four, Final Four. So there’s a lot of girls on the team that know what to do.”

Panther fans can see if there truly was an improvement from 2022 to 2023 on Thursday at 7 p.m. on ESPN, as Pitt faces No. 1 Nebraska. The winner will advance to the NCAA National Championship game.

About the Contributor
Matthew Scabilloni, Senior Staff Writer