Despite tourney snub, Pitt pleased with 25-6 season


By Caitlin Hinsey / Staff Writer

With one year of the ACC under their belt, the Panthers entered the fall with hopes not only of excelling in conference play but also of making the NCAA Tournament. The team’s goal was dashed Sunday evening when the NCAA failed to give Pitt a bid. Despite the snub, head coach Dan Fisher and the Panthers created a strong foundation that the team will continue to build on.

Pitt had one of its best seasons with an overall record of 25-6. The Panthers went 13-5 in the ACC to garner sole possession of fifth place — last season, the team was one of four 11-9 teams to secure that spot.

“The ACC is outright a better conference than the Big East,” senior Kate Yeazel said. “Playing for two years in the Big East, then two years in the ACC, you just see such a higher level in the ACC. This year we were more capable of beating these higher ranked teams versus last year when we were just trying to get through and figure out what we were doing.”

Pitt’s defense was strong this year, holding opponents to .186 hitting percentage, with senior libero Delaney Clesen ranking third in the ACC in digs. Clesen’s 4.48 digs per set gave the Panthers opportunities to continue play in otherwise difficult situations.

“Throughout the entire season, our defense was really good,” junior Amanda Orchard said. “We’re really going to miss [Delaney] next year.”

Offensively, the team was well-rounded, with various players leading the team one match to the next. Orchard remained one of the most consistent players for the team in a breakout year. The middle hitter finished the season with a .431 hitting percentage, placing her sixth in the country. Orchard also hit more than .400 in 21 games and .500 in 16.

Yeazel credited the team’s middles — Orchard and Jenna Potts — for helping the team win but said the team’s success wasn’t from a single player each match.

“We had a very complete team this year,” Yeazel said. “We didn’t have just one person that was our team. We had good people at all positions, and that helped our team chemistry and success.”

Orchard agreed with her teammate. 

“Our team was well spread out,” she said. “We could really count on each player on the court.”

Orchard is one of a handful of starters who will return to play for the Panthers next season. Redshirt sophomore middle blocker Potts will join Orchard at the net. Junior setter Jenna Jacobson, who split setting with senior Lindsey Zitzke, will anchor Pitt’s offense next season. Outside hitters Maria Genitsaridi and Mariah Bell will also look to improve on this season. 

Bell, a freshman, saw increased playing time when senior outside hitter Jessica Wynn injured her foot in the final month of play. Genitsaridi overtook Wynn as the team’s kill leader as well as finishing fifth in the ACC in service aces per set.

“The reason we were good is because we were a balanced team with a lot of good players,” Fisher said. “We were also a really good team off the court. The girls really enjoyed being around us [the staff] and around each other.”

On top of losing Wynn and Zitzke, the Panthers lose the defensive prowess of Clesen, as well as opposites Yeazel and Mechael Guess. Zitzke, the all-time ace record holder at Pitt, had 43 on the season and led the ACC. Yeazel led all active Pitt players in kills per set averaging 2.66. As of late, Guess provided the Panthers depth on the bench, especially in the team’s 3-2 win over Louisville on Nov. 26.

“There definitely have been highs and lows and everything in between, but I wouldn’t trade my four years here for anything,” Yeazel said about her time at Pitt.

One of Yeazel and Orchard’s top memories of the season is beating the program’s first ranked opponent since 2005. Pitt faced No. 25 Duke Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium and defeated the Blue Devils 3-2 in thrilling fashion. 

The Panthers stole the first and third sets before winning the decisive fifth set with a narrow four-point lead. After taking an early 3-0 lead, Duke would come back and knot it up at nine. Bell would hand Pitt a two-point lead thanks to back-to-back kills before the Blue Devils tied it again at 11. The final four points belonged to the Panthers thanks to kills from Potts and Genitsaridi, an ace from Bell and a Duke hitting error.

“It was the first time we beat a top 25 team in my four years here,” Yeazel said. “It was an incredible feeling.”

Beating Duke was special to Orchard because it helped show that the team’s preparation paid off. 

“All the hard work that we have put into the season and the last couple of years was a great feeling to know that we can play with these top 25 teams.”

By barely missing the NCAA Tournament, the returning players have more motivation to obtain a berth next year, according to Orchard.

“We know now that this conference is really strong. We prepared this year knowing that each team was going to be a battle and to fight really hard.” Orchard added, “[The returning players] now know what it takes to make the tournament, and probably right after break we’ll start to shoot up the ball and work out because we know what it takes to make the tournament, and I know everyone is going to be motivated.”