Pitt sure seems to be a volleyball school now. The team is easily the school’s most dominant at the moment, posting a 29-1 overall and 18-0 ACC record heading into postseason play. The Panthers, ranked No. 2 in the AVCA Coaches Poll, will begin their quest on Friday for the ultimate goal — a national championship as the sixth overall seed.
While Pitt’s best season in program history should be deemed a success regardless of how the tournament goes, it’s easy to get caught up in the hype. The Panthers haven’t won a national championship in any sport since 1976, when they earned the last of their nine football titles. If that isn’t enough motivation, the semifinals and final of this year’s volleyball tournament will take place at Pittsburgh’s PPG Paints Arena. Winning the school’s first national championship in 43 years a couple miles from Pitt’s campus would make the experience that much sweeter.
Teams like to take things one game at a time, while fans wouldn’t dare look too far ahead for fear of inducing a jinx. Luckily, we here at The Pitt News have no such reservations. The Panthers have a legitimate shot at the title — here’s how it can happen.
The only part of this article that is guaranteed — the Panthers’ open postseason play at the Petersen Events Center this Friday at 7 p.m against the Howard Bison (20-12 overall, 14-1 MEAC).
Howard earned an automatic bid as the MEAC champion, its fifth straight conference title. The Bison have absolutely dominated the MEAC in those five years, posting a 66-7 conference record over that time span.
Against tougher non-conference competition, however, the Bison appear to be competitive at best. They were a mere 6-11 in those games this year. Howard played three games against teams that made the NCAA tournament, losing to American 3-1, St. John’s 3-0 and USC 3-0.
Performance-wise, Howard does have some strong servers, racking up 197 aces this year. Despite this, the team should easily be overmatched by Pitt’s vicious attack.
If the Panthers win on Friday, they’ll host the winner of the day’s other matchup at the Pete between the Cincinnati Bearcats (25-6 overall, 15-1 AAC) and VCU Rams (24-6, 14-0 Atlantic 10).
Both the Bearcats and Rams fell in their respective conference finals despite their near-perfect conference records during the regular season that earned each of them the top seed. Both are strong squads that cannot be overlooked.
Of the two, Pitt should probably be more worried about Cincinnati, specifically its flawless passing. The Bearcats lead the country with 14.38 assists per set. Sophomore Armania Heckenmueller accounts for 12.21 of those assists per set, also the best in the nation.
Assuming Stanford, the region’s top seed, avoids an upset in its first two matches, the third- and fourth-round matches of Pitt’s region will be played at its facilities. If Pitt advances to the third round and Stanford does not, the Panthers would get to host two more matches.
Pitt’s third-round matchup would likely be one of the most highly anticipated matches of the NCAA volleyball season. This is because it would likely pit the Panthers against in-state rival Penn State (24-5 overall, 17-3 Big 10) for the third time this season.
Pitt played No. 11-seed Penn State, arguably the strongest volleyball program in NCAA history, twice this year. The Panthers came into Happy Valley and shocked the Nittany Lions, dominating in a 3-0 sweep. Pitt hosted a rematch at the Pete two days later, easily breaking the program’s home attendance record. In a grueling nailbiter, Penn State came away with a 3-2 victory.
If this showdown happens, Pitt will be looking for revenge from past postseason matchups. Penn State eliminated the Panthers from the 2016 and 2017 NCAA tournaments, both games at State College.
In the microscopic chance that Penn State is upset in one of the first two rounds, it will likely be by the Towson Tigers (28-2 overall, 16-0 CAA). Towson’s robust defense has held opponents to a .139 hitting percentage this season, the fourth-lowest in the country.
The Panthers’ likely final test to make it to the Pittsburgh-hosted Final Four would be its toughest of the year — taking down the defending national champion Stanford Cardinal (24-4 overall, 18-2 Pac-12).
Stanford, the tournament’s No. 3 seed, enters on a 11-match win streak in the Pac-12, which is the best conference in the country based on RPI. This isn’t surprising when you see the talent-stacked roster Stanford boasts. It brought back all but one starter from 2018’s championship team, including five All-Americans. The Cardinal also brought in the nation’s top recruiting class.
It’s hard to imagine any team stopping Stanford — which was touted before the season as one of the greatest volleyball teams in NCAA history — prior to this round. Two of the teams on Stanford’s side of the region, Utah (22-9 overall, 14-6 Pac-12) and Cal Poly (20-8 overall, 13-3 Big West), played Pitt earlier this season. The Panthers dispatched both teams 3-1, so fans should be confident if they get one of those matchups.
It is worth noting, though, that Utah has played Stanford well during conference play. In their first matchup, the Utes fell in a 3-2 heartbreaker, losing the final set 17-15.
Pitt is certainly focused on one matchup at a time, but if it can somehow string together these four wins, the City of Pittsburgh will be in for a treat when the Final Four comes to town.