Coming into this weekend, the No. 3 Pitt volleyball team (21-1) held a narrow lead at the top of the ACC standings. But after dominant performances against two of the top competitors, the Panthers opened up that lead a bit.
First up was a sweep Friday against Notre Dame. The Irish were right behind the Panthers with only one conference loss and, while they aren’t ranked, they did receive some points in the last Top 25 poll. But they couldn’t keep up with Pitt, falling 25-20, 25-21, and 25-23. All three sets were fairly close but the Panthers refused to drop any of them.
Things were a bit tight in spots on Sunday against Louisville, but the Panthers swept the Cardinals, too. Louisville isn’t ranked, either, but was right there in the last poll at No. 27 as the second-highest vote getters of unranked teams. Pitt struggled with their serve in the first set with five or six errors, which really helped Louisville stay in it. But despite that, Pitt still took the set, 25-21. The second set was even closer and went right down to the wire. The Panthers ultimately held on there as well, for a 25-22 win. Pitt also won the third, 25-20.
The victories give Pitt a perfect 10-0 conference record.
Pitt got a break against Louisville as the Cardinals recently lost their best player, Melanie McHenry, for the season due to an injury. She’s been first-team All-ACC the past two years and one of the top hitters in the conference. That will definitely hurt Louisville’s chances to contend in the ACC going forward, but I thought the Cardinals were still a pretty challenging opponent.
I didn’t see many problems for Pitt in the sweep over Notre Dame. But the offense was definitely a bit off against Louisville and I don’t think it had much to do with the Cardinals, to be honest. Louisville, of course, is a very good team and played well. But the Panthers’ offensive problems seemed to be mostly self-inflicted. I’d have to see the final numbers but believe they hit pretty well. In particular, I don’t think the team struggled with their passing and they didn’t get the kind of clean hits you’re accustomed to seeing from them. They obviously played well but the offense seemed more out of sorts on Sunday in terms of setting up the hitters.
At any rate, the wins put Pitt a full two games up on their nearest competition in conference now with both Louisville and Notre Dame in those slots and several teams with three losses right behind them. If you like conference titles, these two wins were quite big. You never say the conference is wrapped up this early but, given how dominant Pitt has been, it’s very hard to see them losing the conference at this point with only eight matches left — even with a match remaining against Louisville and one against Florida State, who is effectively No. 26 in the poll. They’d need to lose at least three times to not have a guaranteed share of the title and Louisville or Notre Dame would still win out.
Another note is that the Panthers will be home-heavy the rest of the way, playing six of their final eight regular season matches in Pittsburgh, due to the somewhat lopsided road schedule they’ve had (six of their last eight matches were just on the road). That swings things even more in their favor. The Panthers may not go unbeaten the rest of the way but even if they don’t, it’s difficult to see them losing the conference at this point.
That doesn’t mean Pitt should be taking it easy. They not only need to keep winning to remain high in the polls and keep their RPI high, but they need to be winning convincingly to prove they are worthy of hosting a regional. It also wouldn’t hurt for the other top ACC teams, namely Louisville, Florida State, and Notre Dame, to all keep winning to help keep the Panthers’ Strength of Schedule up there. Much work remains for this crew and they can hardly afford a slip up.
Next up are home matches against Wake Forest on Friday and Duke on Sunday.