Volleyball: With another shutout, Pitt sets school record

By Randy Lieberman

Consistency was the goal for the Pitt women’s volleyball team, and despite a lack of… Consistency was the goal for the Pitt women’s volleyball team, and despite a lack of experience, it’s starting to become a reality.

Pitt secured a five-game win streak — its second of the season — with a 3-0 shutout over Villanova on Sunday.

With the win, the Panthers matched their season-high win streak from mid-September. They also clinched — at worst — a third seed in the Big East championship.

The Panthers (18-8 overall, 10-2 Big East) are now one of three teams in the Big East with 10 conference wins, joining Notre Dame (12-0) and Cincinnati (10-2).

Pitt set out to win the Big East’s regular-season championship this year but lost matches to the only two teams ahead of them.

Still, the Panthers like their position.

“All year, we’ve been working to win a regular-season championship, but being at 10-2 in the Big East, a third seed, we’re happy to be in that spot,” head coach Toby Rens said.

With a little help from other teams, the Panthers could climb to a No. 2 seed in this year’s tournament.

Cincinnati holds the tiebreaker over Pitt because of its 3-1 victory on Oct. 3. If Pitt wants to jump Cincinnati, the Bearcats would have to lose one of their final two home matches against Connecticut and St. John’s. The Huskies are trying to secure a No. 7 seed in the Big East championship, while St. John’s has only won two Big East matches.

If Pitt wins out and Cincinnati loses one game, then the Panthers will have the No. 2 seed. The top two seeds in the tournament don’t get a bye or extra rest, but Rens said they do get preferable practice and game times during the tournament.

The Panthers finish their regular season next weekend with home matches against Seton Hall on Friday and Rutgers on Sunday. Despite winning half as many Big East matches as Pitt, Seton Hall is still fighting for one of eight spots in the Big East championship.

“A lot of things could happen this weekend,” Rens said. “Cincinnati has to play St. John’s and Connecticut, and they’re both solid teams. And we have Rutgers and Seton Hall, and Seton Hall is gunning to finish in the top eight.”

The Panthers are a commanding 9-2 at home this year. With two wins, the Panthers could have double-digit home wins for the second time in three years.

The Panthers dispatched Villanova in three sets, their fifth shutout victory in a row. The shutout also gave Pitt eight for the year, which sets a record after the 2003 Panthers achieved seven during the season.

Senior Meagan Dooley led Pitt with 13 kills, while junior Amy Town had 12. Junior Imani Harper had six blocks, and sophomore Allyson Hodnik recorded a match-high 33 assists.

“Villanova was a great opponent to have for us this time of year,” Rens said. “They really forced us to work hard for our points. That’s where we want to be because it forces us to sustain a high level of play.”

Senior Melissa Stadelman had five blocks and nine kills on 13 attempts.

Pitt out-blocked Villanova with 11 blocks, a trend that has developed all year.

Whether they get the second seed or not, the Panthers can take the success they’ve had defensively into the Big East championship. The Panthers have won all season with their defensive net play and quick transitions from strong defense to offensive attack.

“One thing we have prided ourselves on this year is our blocking and defense transition,” Rens said. “When that piece of our game is on, transitioning from defense to offense, we’re a very tough team to beat. It’s players like Imani Harper, Meagan Dooley and Melissa Stadelman who play a significant role when we transition from defense to offense.”

Pitt ranks eighth in the country with a 2.82 blocks per set average. Individually, Dooley is the sixth-best blocker in the nation, averagering 1.48 blocks per set. She also ranks 17th in points per set (5.02) and 19th in hitting percentage (.384).

Pitt will look for its first Big East tournament championship since 2003, when it defeated Notre Dame in the finals. That year, Pitt advanced in the first round of the NCAA Tournament before losing to Penn State in the next round.