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Pitt volleyball in a quick 0-2 hole after sweep against Syracuse

The Pitt volleyball team has been the school’s best program lately. But that seems to be changing for this year, anyway.

The fact that the volleyball season has even started has sort of gone under the radar. The teams aren’t ranked yet so there’s been no hype around that. Combine that with the fact that both Pitt soccer teams are ranked and that the football team has been ranked and, well, there’s less folks paying attention to volleyball right now.

But the team is off to an unmistakably bad start if you’ve missed it. The Panthers were beaten by Syracuse on Friday in five sets and then swept by the Orange on Saturday. Add it up and you’ve got an 0-2 start for a team that was again expected to be quite good.

Make no mistake — the team has lost pieces from last year’s top five squad. Most notably, they lost starters Stephanie Williams and Layne Van Buskirk, as well as transfer libero Hali Hillegas. They also lost Nika Markovic who was an All-Conference player that was sort of pushed to a backup role with the emergence of Chinaza Ndee.

Still, those losses seemed manageable. Van Buskirk was essentially being replaced by Sabrina Starks, who has been pretty good as an underclassman. Williams would be replaced by Zoi Faki, one of the top backups, and transfer Jordan Lockwood, the junior college Player of the Year in 2019. And Hillegas would be replaced by Marija Popovic, a senior transfer from ETSU, who was the conference’s Libero of the Year in 2017 and 2018, along with All-Conference First Teamer the last two years.

Different pieces, sure. But the result was expected to be about the same — more dominance of a fairly weak conference, particularly with the return of Kayla Lund and Ndee, who were probably the team’s two best offensive weapons. Those are the reasons why Pitt was picked first in the preseason ACC poll again.

Um, wrong.

Look, we’re only two games in. And Syracuse, for the record, was not expected to be bad. They were picked sixth in the ACC preseason poll and are a decent team. But, again — Pitt was also expected to win the conference for a third straight year, sitting atop the preseason poll, and these matches were definitely unexpected.

So what ails the Panthers? Well, I only caught part of the first match so I’ve not studied the team too closely yet. Thus, being too critical has to come with a grain of salt. But a few things jumped out to me in looking at the box scores.

In the first game, two of Pitt’s big hitters, Lund and Lockwood, really struggled. The two combined for 15 attack errors, which is just way too many. And Lund only hit .163 while Lockwood was in the negatives. Lund recovered in the second game for a strong 19-kill performance but Ndee hit below .090 and had only five kills. Lockwood continued to struggle, too, with five errors and another negative hitting percentage.

It’s also worth noting that, at least judging by the box, you wonder how well Popovic is working out. Pitt has played reserve Ashley Browske quite a bit already there and the fact that Lund has led the team in digs the last two games isn’t encouraging. Obviously, she’s a strong back line player. But the box scores sort of read as if Pitt is having some troubles defensively.

If that’s indeed the case, there’s some reason for optimism. Hillegas struggled last year as a transfer, too, before really turning things around.

Will things turn around? Probably? There’s some real talent on this team, after all, and they are not in the toughest conference in the world. But dropping back-to-back losses to a team that could sort of fit in middle-of-the-pack isn’t encouraging. One loss, you can sort of dismiss. Two speaks to something larger, though.

But maybe Syracuse is better than expected or maybe Pitt is worse than expected. Maybe it’s just getting into the flow of things after a weird COVID-laced offseason. But so far, the plug and play system of simply replacing key departures with transfers doesn’t seem like it’s a given. The move to Hillegas from former libero Angie Seman wasn’t seamless at first and maybe this is some of that. Whatever. I’ll have more analysis once I actually see the team but one thing is certain — Pitt’s got work to do here, clearly.

Next up is a pair of home matches against Boston College in two weeks.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill’s Facebook page and follow us on Twitter @PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.