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Hot streaks meet in Pittsburgh as volleyball prepares for No. 2 Pitt

The Cavaliers look to unseat the undefeated Panthers

<p>In her first year as Virginia's head coach, Shannon Wells has already led her team to great success this season.</p>

In her first year as Virginia's head coach, Shannon Wells has already led her team to great success this season.

Virginia travels to the Fitzgerald Field House on Wednesday to take on No. 2 Pittsburgh — a powerhouse in the NCAA volleyball world. Let’s dive into what we can expect from each team during the matchup.

Pitt

The season is still young, but Pitt (12-0, 2-0 ACC) is shaping up to be one of the best volleyball teams in the country this year. Even though their pursuit of a fourth consecutive ACC title fell short last year, the Panthers made a run to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament. This year, they are off to a hot start — having won each of their first 12 games, including four wins over ranked teams. Pitt has been especially hot as of late, dropping only two sets over its last seven matches. 

The Panthers’ rotation is led by fifth-year right-side hitter Chinaza Ndee, who paces the team with 152 kills and sits fourth in total blocks. The Houston, Tx. native has built a reputation around her thunderous spikes and is a candidate to be a first team All-American this year after being named to the second team as a senior.

The other bastion of the Pitt frontline is junior middle blocker Serena Gray. The Penn State transfer has used all of her 6-foot-2-inch frame to lead the team in blocks with 52. 

Elsewhere, the receiving ability of junior libero Ashley Browske — she boasts a stellar .960 reception percentage — and passing ability of graduate setter Kylee Levers have been huge for the Panthers, allowing them to consistently run their offense and set up Ndee for easy kills.

Virginia

On the other side of the net, Virginia (8-4, 1-1 ACC) is trending upwards after a catastrophic season during the pandemic. In March the entire volleyball coaching staff was relieved of their duties, and the final six games of the season were forfeited, resulting in a 2-12 (0-11 ACC) record. 

This season, though, things look much better for the Cavaliers under Coach Shannon Wells and her assistants. The team sits well above .500 and have won more conference games than last season already. Unfortunately, Virginia couldn’t handle its only ranked opponent this season, falling in straight sets to then-No. 4 Ohio State.

Virginia’s strongest point is its frontline. Freshman outside hitter Brooklyn Borum and senior outside hitter Grace Turner lead the team with 116 and 127 kills, respectively. Both are capable of uncorking devastating shots from above the net, shown by a Turner kill against Fairleigh Dickinson where she elevated high above the net and drove the ball straight down onto the head of an opposing hitter. 

Graduate middle blocker Alana Walker has been solid holding down the center of the net, contributing nearly two blocks per set. Her ability to foil Gray and Ndee will be crucial for the Cavaliers if they want to upset Pitt.

Predictions

On paper, Virginia is a clear underdog facing a juggernaut on the road. However, a shock upset is not entirely out of the question. Wells has turned the team around entirely this year, and beating a great team like the Panthers would be a statement of intent for the team. 

A lot will need to go right for Virginia to win, though. Sophomore opposite hitter Mary Shaffer, Turner and Borum would need to find holes in the Pitt defense between the towering Ndee up front and Browske in the back. Walker would need to put together a career game sliding in front of the net and stifling any Panther attacks. The rest of the Cavalier team would need to play mistake-free volleyball and hope for a lot of fortunate bounces in order to keep things close.

Overall, expect Virginia to be competitive in every set, but don’t be surprised if they fail to push a truly exceptional Pitt team to a full five sets.

The Cavaliers will begin play against the Panthers at 8 p.m., which can be watched on the ACC Network.

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