Volleyball: As the No. 3 seed, Panthers ready for Big East Championships

By Randy Lieberman

The Pitt women’s volleyball team played 28 games this year, but now its season success depends… The Pitt women’s volleyball team played 28 games this year, but now its season success depends on its last three.

This weekend’s Big East Championship presents one final chance for the Panthers to meet two goals: securing a Big East title and advancing to the NCAA Tournament.

Three wins would get them both.

“You play all year for seeding, and it comes down to peaking at the right time, and winning three in a row this weekend would be our eighth, ninth and 10th match we’ve won in a row,” Pitt head coach Toby Rens said. “We do that, we’re conference champs, and we get the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.”

But the task won’t be easy.

Pitt’s journey starts on Friday at 10 a.m. against South Florida. The Panthers played one of their closest games this year against the Bulls, winning a 3-2 match by scores of 21-25, 25-22, 25-20, 22-25 and 15-9.

“South Florida is a very good team, they run a little different system than the rest of the league, a 6-2,” Rens said.

The style, which puts more hitters in the front row for Pitt to account for, makes South Florida a little harder to defend, Rens said.

“The first match, they came out really aggressive, and we had a little trouble adjusting to their system,” he said. “It took us a little while to get into a groove. Defensively we had an excellent match because we had one block in the first set but ended up with 18 for the match.”

After South Florida, if Pitt beats the Bulls and continues its quest for a Big East crown, it must dispatch the Big East’s best teams. If all games were decided by higher seeding, Pitt would need to avenge regular-season losses against No. 2-seeded Cincinnati and No. 1-seeded Notre Dame to win the tournament.

But, Rens said, being a higher seed doesn’t necessarily guarantee a victory, and this year he wants his team to treat its next games just like all of the regular-season ones.

“We just try to keep our approach the same whether we’re the three, four, five, six or seven seed,” he said. “Last year, I think we went into the tournament with the hope of doing well and winning, and this year I think it’s more of a reality. There’s been more success this year to really validate us being in the tournament and being a contender.”

The Panthers’ players learned the same lesson during the 2008 Big East Championship at Pitt. Last year, Pitt came into the Big East Championship, in front of a hometown crowd, as the No. 7 seed, facing then-No. 2 seed Cincinnati.

The Panthers looked overmatched, falling into a 2-0 hole by the break to an experienced and talented Bearcats squad. But the Panthers came out of halftime fighting and won three straight sets to win the match and finish the upset.

It’s something Rens and the Panthers take with them today.

“The biggest thing we take is the recollection of what it took to get there. I think, certainly, with the returning players, they have the success winning last year and getting to the semifinal,” Rens said. “Kind of building on the hunger is taking it one step further and to play in the finals and one step beyond that and win the finals.”

Pitt has a successful recent history in the Big East tournament. From 1988 to 1996, Pitt made every finals matchup, winning seven titles.

But the Panthers haven’t been back to the title game since 2004, when it lost to Notre Dame.

Lucky for Pitt, Louisville has been a hospitable host for it all season.

This year, Pitt made two separate trips to the University of Louisville for a tournament and a Big East tilt against the Cardinals. Combined, Pitt is 3-1 in Louisville this year.

The Panthers dropped their only match against Arizona (3-1) while winning matches against Belmont (3-2), Wichita State (3-0) and Louisville (3-2).

The success bodes well for Pitt in the Big East Championship, which will be held in the Kentucky Convention Center instead of Louisville’s on-campus volleyball arena, where Pitt won its regular-season games.

But Rens still thinks familiarity can help the Panthers.

“In a way it feels a little bit like a home away from home, having played four matches in Louisville, going 3-1,” he said. “It’s something I hope we can tap into and build upon that 3-1 record, hopefully we push it to 6-1 in Louisville.”