The Pitt volleyball team is gearing up for a big season. With nearly everyone back from last year’s ACC championship team, the Panthers have gotten all kinds of early season accolades. And with a Top 20 recruiting class, the program has all kinds of momentum.
But the team was dealt a substantial blow when it was announced late last week that starting setter Kylee Levers would miss the season with a torn ACL.
Levers is not the best player on the team but she was one of the most important. The most substantial pieces lost from last year’s team were starting libero Angela Seman and starting setter Kamalani Akeo. Pitt addressed Seman’s loss by bringing in an experienced transfer, Hali Hillegas. I’ll get to more on that in a bit. While Akeo’s loss was big, Pitt had sort of solved that by working Levers in last year. Akeo was the unquestioned starter but Levers got a good amount of experience and the transition should have been somewhat seamless.
Her injury throws all of that out of the window now.
Pitt has two backups on the roster that will be competing for the job. One is redshirt freshman Maddie Soboleski, who didn’t play at all last year and the other is true freshman Lexis Akeo, who obviously didn’t play, either. Lexis is actually Kamalani’s little sister, which is something you can expect to hear brought up in every match this season.
Both are expected to be quality players but Pitt’s issue is two-fold here. For one thing, neither has any collegiate match experience. The bigger issue to me, though, is that Pitt is replacing 2⁄3 of the offensive ‘components’ in a possession at once by breaking in a new libero and a new setter. Those are positions that require a good bit of coordination with each other as they have to get used to each other’s tendencies, etc.
The good news is that Pitt’s hitters are second to none, really. Or few, anyway. The Panthers return all of their keys there, including Kayla Lund, Stephanie Williams, and Nika Markovic. Add Chinaza Ndee to the mix and, in terms of quality depth, that collective group is better than most. They are abundantly set in the middle with Layne Van Buskirk, Sabrina Starks, and the 6’5” Anastasia Russ, who is a true freshman but a potential star.
It could be argued that, Pitt’s front line could score with just about anyone setting them the ball. That point was kind of made (though not to that extreme, obviously) by Williams in a Sunday Trib article:
“We don’t need a perfect setter. We just need a good one over time, and I think we have that. … I trust them.”
I mostly tend to believe that but I’d be lying if I said the cohesion wasn’t a concern for me. This is not only about replacing a setter but, as stated, breaking in a new libero isn’t going to be a cakewalk, either — even if Hillegas is experienced.
In that Trib article, Fisher acknowledged Hillegas had gotten ‘off to a slow start’ but had been progressing. Of note here is that Pitt seems to be trying to cover all its bases here as backup hitter, Zoi Faki, was getting time in at libero. Moving Faki isn’t an issue. She is a quality hitter and could probably start for many teams that aren’t as deep. But that she is playing at libero at all with Hillegas there and a backup that actually has seen some time at the position in Avery Perosa, tells us that there are probably some concerns about setting up the offense.
I expect Pitt will be fine. But a lot of fans unfamiliar with the sport could get quite the education of just how important a libero and setter are to a team early in the season. Pitt’s hitters are world class but they still need someone to deliver the ball at the right time to their preferred locations, and that takes time to learn even if the skill set is there.
The team could be clicking on all cylinders later in the season but a slow start wouldn’t necessarily surprise me.