Last August, I was visiting Omaha. I know what you’re going to say: “A summer vacation in Nebraska, James? Doesn’t *everyone* do that?!”
Shut up. Omaha was nice.
Anyway, I was there to see my brother compete in the Age Group National Championships for USA Triathlon.
While my brother and I waited at Omaha’s Eppley Airfield for our flights, I picked up a copy of the Omaha World-Herald. This was the front page of the sports section:
Underneath a recap of the Triathlon nationals, next to a Sunday feature about Nebraska Football, there was an unusual sight…
About women’s volleyball.
On the front page of the Sunday paper.
Columnist Tom Shatel lauded Nebraska and Creighton Volleyball for being in the preseason Top 10, and bemoaning the fact that the two teams would not meet in the upcoming regular season.
See, I went to school at USC, and I mistakenly thought the West Coast was volleyball country. (What do you think all that space on the beach is for?)
But I was wrong. Volleyball Country is on the prairie, particularly in Nebraska.
The Cornhuskers have won five National Championships and have the highest attendance in Volleyball every year as a matter of course.
Top 20 in NCAA Volleyball Attendance (Last 5 years)
- Nebraska (8,175 per game)
- Hawaiʻi (6,879)
- Wisconsin (5,101)
- Minnesota (4,324)
- Penn State (3,390)
- Texas (3,071)
- Michigan State (2,964)
- Illinois (2,872)
- Colorado State (2,718)
- Wichita State (2,689)
- Washington (2,686)
- Missouri (2,602)
- Iowa State (2,552)
- Northern Iowa (2,532)
- Purdue (2,499)
- Florida (2,393)
- North Carolina (2,134)
- Kansas State (2,091)
- Stanford (2,021)
- BYU (1,838)
And that margin at the top could be higher if the Huskers played in a bigger arena: Nebraska has sold out more than 250 straight matches and is one of only two schools in the country to consistently make a profit on women’s volleyball.
(The other is Hawaiʻi, where the team is called the Rainbow Wahine, which I pronounce the coolest name in the NCAA.)
In the season following that World-Herald column, Nebraska went on to win its 5th National Championship. Creighton was defeated in the second round by a Big Ten opponent, Michigan State… just like Pitt went down in Round No. 2 to Penn State.
Pitt had some sparkling achievements in that 2017 season: a 26-7 record, an 18-2 conference record, and its first ACC title (and only the second for the university, after Wrestling in 2014). But Sinatra will tell you: the best was yet to come.
Pitt’s Breakout Season
Most of Pitt’s top players returned in 2018, paving the way for the best season in school history:
- 23-0 start
- 11-0 start to ACC play
- 29-1 regular season
- 17-1 in ACC play
- First outright ACC championship
- Reaching 23 straight home victories (dating back to 2017)
- Hosting NCAA Tournament matches for the first time, as a Top-16 finisher
Head coach Dan Fisher assembled an attacking squad: 7th in the nation with 14.6 kills per set, and 6th in the nation with a .297 hitting percentage.
And Pitt featured a strong core leading the way in 2018:
- 3rd-best server in the ACC (0.35 aces per set)
- 4th-most points in the ACC (4.09 per set)
- 6th-most kills in the ACC (3.58 per set)
Layne Van Buskirk
- 2nd-best hitter in the ACC (.411 hitting percentage)
- 3rd-best blocker in the ACC and 18th-best in the country (1.42 blocks per set)
- 3rd-most points in the ACC (4.33 per set)
- 5th-most kills in the ACC (3.60 per set)
- 7th-best server in the ACC (0.28 aces per set)
- 9th-best hitter in the ACC (.333 hitting percentage)
Unfortunately, the season ended without a long run in the NCAA Tournament.
Pitt swept Iona in its first time ever as an NCAA host, but in the 3rd set, Lund went down hard on the Petersen Event Center’s new floor. She needed help to get to the locker room, marring a landmark victory for the program.
Without Lund, Pitt was not at full strength Saturday for Round 2 against No. 18 Michigan.
The Wolverines’ defense held Pitt to a season low .181 hitting percentage, and Pitt made an almost-season-worst 29 attack errors.
Michigan’s Carly Skjodt peppered the Panthers with 20 kills and led an 8-0 run in the final set that (combined with six Pitt errors over that run) ended Pitt’s historic season.
If you only looked at the season-ending tournaments, you might think Fisher’s program has stalled out. For three straight years, Pitt has been dispatched in the 2nd round by an opponent from the stronger Big Ten conference.
But that conclusion would ignore the accomplishments Pitt made this season: Not just the winning streak and milestones detailed above, but also capturing Pittsburgh’s attention.
I was not the only one hopping on the bandwagon of Pitt Volleyball in 2018. The last 5 matches of Pitt’s season were also the 5 highest-attended matches in school history:
- 3,179 fans – Nov. 11 vs. Duke (at Fitzgerald Field House)
- 2,898 fans – Nov. 21 vs. Georgia Tech (at Petersen Events Center)
- 2,807 fans – Nov. 30 vs. Iona (at Petersen Events Center)
- 2,405 fans – Dec. 1 vs. Michigan (at Petersen Events Center)
- 2,152 fans – Oct. 21 vs. Louisville (at Fitzgerald Field House)
And why shouldn’t people have come out to support this team? Not only did they get to see a Pitt squad that dominated the ACC, they got one of the best values in sports: $3 in advance, $5 day of match.
At those prices, you would think entering the threshold of the Fitzgerald Field House took you back to the 1980’s.
Now, dear reader, I ask you to scroll back up to re-examine that list of the best-attended volleyball schools.
If Pitt were able to average 2,688 fans (like it did over the last five matches) over a full season, they would be right on the precipice of the top 10 in the nation in attendance. Just like that.
Why 2019 is critical
As stellar as the Panthers were this season, they could be even better next year.
Coach Fisher will have his strongest attacking group yet. All 8 of the top players in kills from 2018 return in 2019.
That includes those four front-line players listed above, as well as Stephanie Williams and Zoi Faki (who combined for 20 kills and 39 digs in the season-ending loss to Michigan), sophomore Kylee Levers and freshman Sabrina Starks.
The goal for Pitt in 2019 is clear and achievable: make it to Volleyball’s Final Four, which will be played just down Fifth Avenue at PPG Paints Arena.
Yes, for the first time, Pittsburgh is hosting the National Championship. And it just so happens to be the same year Pitt will have its strongest team in school history. And if the national championship sells out, it would mark the largest crowd in NCAA Volleyball history.
2019 is a blue-and-golden opportunity for the program.
In my previous piece advocating for a women’s pro sports team in Pittsburgh, I wrote that Pitt Volleyball got the 67-year-old Fitzgerald Field House rockin’.
But early-1950’s gymnasiums aren’t en vogue in today’s college landscape. And Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke is smart enough to see that the volleyball, wrestling and gymnastic teams need a new home, as part of a project called Victory Heights.
As Pitt’s highly anticipated McCarl Hall of Champions is under construction, Panther fans can expect the changes to continue – Pitt’s athletic innovation will extend up “cardiac hill” to all athletic facilities.In a question and answer roundtable discussion between Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke and the media April 25, Lyke presented several future plans the…
And to build a first-class athletic complex, you need donations. Lots of ’em. While successful football and men’s basketball teams can get alumni to break out the checkbooks, schools don’t usually score big-digit donations for Volleyball.
Except, that is, if you have a top-10 program that’s in line to compete for a National Championship in its home city.
Fans are paying attention, and that means donors are paying attention. Pitt could ask each fan attending next season to make a $5 donation to Victory Heights, and the overall ticket price would still be $10 or less. A public campaign would also get the word out to donors that they should be part of Pitt’s volleyball future.
As with all major college sports, there’s a recruiting game at play too.
Other Midwest schools like Ohio State and Indiana are already building their fancy new digs (that’s a volleyball pun). Recruits coming to Pitt ought to know that, by the time they reach their senior year, they’ll be playing in the finest volleyball arena in the country.
If the 2019 Pitt Volleyball team takes care of business on the floor, and keeps the wins coming, momentum is on their side. 120 WPIAL schools field girls volleyball teams, giving Western Pennsylvania grassroots support for the game. The time has never been better for Pitt to take advantage and become a regular contender, and turn Pittsburgh into a volleyball town.
Pitt’s plan right now is to build its new volleyball/wrestling/gymnastics arena with 3,000 seats. But if the Panthers keep winning, the Athletic Department might want to expand that a bit.
Nebraska, look out. The University of Pittsburgh’s making its own bid to be part of Volleyball Country.
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