Volleyball sets sights on NCAA tournament for new season


Kate Yeazel and the Panthers have a game plan for what they want to accomplish this season and it comes down to one thing: “We want to make the tournament.”

The Pitt women’s volleyball team will start the trek to achieve their main goal of making the NCAA tournament when they make their season debut this weekend at the Hampton Inn Invitational in Bowling Green, Ohio. Pitt will have to have an excellent year to make to the tournament. In the first of four tournaments scheduled, Pitt debuts against Middle Tennessee State Friday afternoon. The following day, the Panthers will face the University of Dayton and tournament host Bowling Green.    

“We are definitely just trying to get three wins this weekend to get ourselves off to a good start,” senior outside hitter Jessica Wynn said. “We are just going to try and take care of every game.”

Yeazel shares a similar mindset with her teammate. 

“Obviously we want to get all three wins because these preseason games are important for our RPI,” said the senior opposite hitter.

The Panthers look to build upon a solid 2013 season in which coach Dan Fisher built a winning foundation in his first year with the team. Not only did Pitt start the 2013 season off with a new coach, but also in a new and stronger volleyball conference. Despite the obstacles, the Panthers finished 2013 with a 19-14 record and an 11-9 Atlantic Coast Conference record, performing better than expected.

“We’re almost returning everyone so we’re in a pretty great position right now. I think that if we get ourselves three wins that it will give us a confidence boost going into all of our preseason tournaments,” Wynn said.

Pitt’s roster includes 13 returning players, five of whom are seniors. Senior libero Delaney Clesen is returning to Pitt after playing for the U.S. Collegiate National Team member this past summer.

Another player to watch for the Panthers this upcoming season is Wynn. The senior finished last year’s inaugural ACC season on the third team All-ACC, compiling a team-leading 410 kills along with 220 digs. Wynn is a preseason favorite to make the All-ACC team once again in 2014.

On the other side of the net, Pitt’s opponents pose strong competition but the Panthers begin the tournament against a relatively young squad in Middle Tennessee State. The team is returning only nine players while the rest of the roster consists of eight freshmen. The Blue Raiders have coach Matt Peck, who is returning for his 11th season — a consistency Pitt doesn’t have.

Dayton will present a challenge to the Panthers on Saturday, as the Flyers are predicted to finish third in the Atlantic 10 behind cross-city competitor Duquesne. Previously, Dayton won four of five conference championships. Head coach Tim Horsmon makes his return to the Flyers Volleyball program, as he coached there from 2003-07 and spent the last six seasons at former ACC opponent Maryland. The Flyers have a young team with five incoming freshmen and two seniors.

Tournament host Bowling Green aims to prove themselves with their young, but talented, roster. In one year, the Falcons went from being a veteran team to youthful with 11 of their 13 players either freshmen or sophomores.

The Falcons’ star player is senior Erica Fullenkamp. The setter has the most experience on the team — she’s started 71 career matches entering 2014 and was a part of the Falcons’ 2012 MAC Championship team. Another impact player is sophomore Jelena Sunjic, as the Croatian outside hitter had a stellar freshman year and was named to the All-MAC Freshman Team. Sunjic starts 2014 on the same foot after being named to the Preseason All-MAC East Division Team.

While Yeazel is looking forward to playing Bowling Green, Fisher is more excited for the first match against Middle Tennessee State, which he said will be “a battle.”

“The first one is always the toughest because we don’t have much to go on. We’re going to have to adapt in the game so the team that adapts quicker, I think, is going to win,” Fisher said.

Although it’s the start of the season, Pitt is more than ready to fight for its goal. Both Wynn and Yeazel said the team is ready to begin the journey toward making the NCAA tournament.

“We have been training and working out and everyone’s been here all summer. This is the time of the year that everything pays off,” Wynn said. “It’s definitely exciting but nerve-wracking at the same time. But it’s a good nervous though.”

Yeazel added that “there’s definitely a big excitement in just knowing that all the things that you have been doing the past year [are] kind of paying off for this moment.”