The Pitt volleyball season came to an end on Saturday as the Panthers were defeated by top overall seed Penn State in the NCAA Tournament, 3-1. Penn State took the first set 25-20 before Pitt won the second 25-23. The Panthers then lost two more close sets, falling 25-22 in the third and 25-19 in the fourth.
Overall, I thought Pitt played reasonably well. I was disappointed in the first set because Penn State didn’t look great and I thought the Panthers made a lot of mistakes. Pitt played extremely well in the second and at that point, you felt like they could legitimately contend.
The third and fourth sets were different stories, though. I thought Penn State looked underwhelming in the first two sets but they played much stronger in the last two. Pitt played Penn State closely in those sets but the Nittany Lions also built two decent leads in each and forced Pitt to play catchup.
Penn State, by my account, did two things much better than Pitt. First, as expected, their front court blocking was exceptional. That was no secret and if you have to pick one strength of the team, it’s probably that. They blocked several Pitt shots on multiple rallies and I wouldn’t be shocked if they weren’t the best team in the country in that area. It just made it really hard for Pitt to accumulate easy kills and hardly anything that the Panthers got was given to them.
Second, Penn State’s players were very skilled in their placement of the ball. Not only on the powerful kills, but in tips and dinks over the net. They really did a great job of finding open spots on the court. Pitt has done that a lot this year with mixed success and last night, they weren’t able to do it very well. In an effort to avoid the Penn State blockers, Pitt tried the lighter taps over the net but they were mostly ineffective. Too often, it resulted in Penn State being able to easily get to the ball and set up their offense. Many of those ended up being free balls that put Penn State right back on the offensive.
All of that said, it was good seeing Pitt take a set from Penn State and it’s hard to argue that more should have been expected. They were facing the No. 1 overall seed on the road and taking even one set is somewhat of an achievement against such a great team.
If you’re still discouraged, you should also note one thing. Pitt will only get better next year. The Panthers lose only two seniors in Mariah Bell and Alex Rosignol, and neither started. Bell was actually a second team All-ACC player last season but relinquished her spot to freshman Kayla Lund who, as I’ve written, was arguably the top freshman in the ACC. Pitt should return most of its production and when you compare the two programs, the contrast was interesting.
Penn State started five seniors and one junior while Pitt started two juniors, two sophomores, and two true freshmen. That’s not to suggest that Penn State won’t be back next year. They are one of the top programs in the country and one that is able to reload pretty easily. I can’t imagine they don’t have a lot of players on their bench that would start for other teams.
But my point is that this iteration of the Panthers hasn’t really reached its peak yet. Next year, the team returns just about everyone and even in the year after that, the Panthers’ top hitters will be back for another year since they’re all underclassmen right now. Pitt will need to replace libero Angela Seman and setter Kamalani Akeo and, trust me, that won’t be an easy task - Seman was particularly good I thought last night and Akeo was the ACC setter of the year last season. But the front line hitters/middles will all be back in 2019.
In other words, you can count on seeing very strong teams for the next two years and it’s clear that Dan Fisher is building a special program. Fisher spoke confidently in the post-game press conference and mentioned that this one hurt more because he felt they could have beaten Penn State this season where last year, that may not have been the case. This program isn’t yet elite but you get the sense that they can get there under him. This is a very young team that’s already doing some impressive things and while second-round exits in the NCAA Tournament are tough, when you string a few of these seasons together, it gets easier to convince the elite players that you’re capable of going farther and reaching a Final Four. Despite the loss, this is a program that’s very much continuing to build a strong foundation and Fisher has done an unbelievable job.