Pittsburgh riding hot start, historic split vs. Penn State to No. 4 in NCAA volleyball rankings

Pittsburgh junior Kayla Lund totaled 37 kills and 25 digs in a weekend split against Penn State. Alex Mowrey/Pitt Athletics

When Dan Fisher took over University of Pittsburgh volleyball in 2013, he could have looked at the juggernaut program 130 miles east for inspiration. But that wasn't the case.

He wasn't trying to emulate seven-time NCAA champion Penn State's massive success. He focused on getting the Panthers back into the NCAA tournament, where they'd been absent since 2004.

This past weekend, the Panthers didn't just stand toe-to-toe with the Nittany Lions; they split with them in a home-and-home series that brought a lot of attention to volleyball in Pittsburgh, the city that will host this year's final four in December.

On Friday, Pitt won 3-0 at Penn State for its first victory over the Nittany Lions since 1987 and first win in Happy Valley since 1980. On Sunday, the Panthers nearly made it a series sweep but fell 16-14 in the fifth set of a nail-biter in front of 5,195 fans at Pittsburgh.

Considering the long drought against Penn State, which included second-round losses to the Nittany Lions in the 2016 and 2017 NCAA tournaments, this weekend was huge for Pitt volleyball.

"We were firing on all cylinders offensively at their place," Fisher said. "The game at our place, we didn't play as well. But we showed we're a really good team. There were some great rallies, and we set the attendance record for our program. It was cool for our community and the city of Pittsburgh. And it's obviously good timing to get people excited about volleyball with the final four coming here."

The Panthers are now 11-1 and ranked No. 4 in this week's American Volleyball Coaches Association poll; Penn State, which had been fourth, dropped to fifth. Pitt begins ACC play Wednesday at Virginia.

How did Fisher, a native of Santa Barbara, California, whose previous coaching experience was on the West Coast and in Hawaii, come to Pitt? He got to know coaching legend Mike Hebert while working with USA Volleyball. Hebert, who found success at Illinois and Minnesota, coached at Pitt in the early days of the program, from 1976 to 1979, and had fond memories of it. Hebert was helping the Panthers put together a list of candidates after Toby Rens left the program and called Fisher to gauge his interest.

"He said, 'What do you think about Pittsburgh?'" Fisher recalled, chuckling. "And I said, 'I don't know; I've never been there.' So he talked me through it and said he loved living there. We had a 3-month-old baby, but my wife was up for the adventure. I didn't really have a very good understanding of the recruiting base here; that was all stuff I had to learn."

He progressed with that quickly.

Fisher had just come off a 72-2 record with an NAIA national championship in two seasons at Concordia-Irvine in California. His start at Pitt coincided with the school joining the ACC.

Pitt had success in the Big East, including six regular-season titles and 11 conference tournament championships. But the Big East was not one of volleyball's power conferences. The ACC is trying to build itself more into that, and the Panthers are helping the cause.

"It was cool for our community and the city of Pittsburgh. And it's obviously good timing to get people excited about volleyball with the final four coming here." Pittsburgh coach Dan Fisher

Under Fisher, Pitt returned to the NCAA tournament in 2016, and it also has made it the past two years. The Panthers shared the ACC regular-season title with Louisville in 2017 and won it outright last season, going 30-2 overall and 17-1 in league play. Their only losses in 2018 were to Duke in the regular season and Michigan in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Fisher has been ACC coach of the year the past two seasons.

The Big Ten and Pac-12 are among volleyball's powerhouse conferences, but Fisher has been able to land talented players from those schools' recruiting territories. That includes junior outside hitter Kayla Lund from Pasadena, California. At 6 feet tall, she was underestimated by most Pac-12 schools who, Fisher said, thought she didn't jump high enough. But she found a home away from home in Pittsburgh, a city she has come to love. Lund was an AVCA All-American honorable mention pick last year, and she leads the Panthers with 164 kills and 4.29 points per set.

Senior middle blocker Layne Van Buskirk had focused more on tennis in her native Canada, but at 6-foot-3, she had enough volleyball skill to convince Fisher she could develop into a very good college player. She leads the Panthers with 48 blocks and is second in points per set (3.37).

Junior middle blocker/right side Chinaza Ndee out of Houston chose Pitt in large part for its medical school; she is third on the team in kills (107) and is the ACC player of the week after recording a combined 28 kills and 13 blocks in the matches against Penn State.

Setter Lexis Akeo is the ACC freshman of the week. She is just 17 and from Hawaii. Her older sister, Kamalani, also was the Panthers' setter and finished her Pitt career last year.

Fisher was pragmatic about the Panthers' aspirations when he took over the program, but he knows how much they've progressed. After a weekend like they just had, why not dream big? There is only one team in the AVCA top 10 that is undefeated: No. 2 Baylor, which is 9-0. Defending national champion Stanford is at No. 1, but the Cardinal already have lost twice. This could be a year when there will be a first-timer or two in the final four.

"Every year, we've raised our goals," Fisher said. "At our first team meeting back in January, I let the team know: 'Whether we're good enough or not, time will tell. But the final four will be right down the street. Let's go for it.'"