How a player from Pasadena helped produce perfection in Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh's Dan Fisher and BYU's Heather Olmstead coached together in the Pam Am Games three years ago and in the Pan Am Cup before that. Now nearly 2,000 miles apart, they share a common ground in volleyball.
Olmstead's Cougars and Fisher's Panthers are both 15-0, the only teams without a loss this NCAA volleyball season. Previously unbeaten Illinois (14-1) fell to Nebraska 3-1 on Saturday night.
BYU, which has won its last 24 sets, is atop the AVCA poll. Meanwhile, weekend victories over Miami and Florida State propelled No. 8 Pitt to its best start in school history.
These Panthers figured to be good -- they advanced to the NCAA tournament the last two years and were favored to repeat as ACC champions behind honorable mention All-Americans Stephanie Williams and Nika Markovic.
But this good?
"I didn't think we'd be undefeated at this point," Fisher said.
An early-season victory over Cal-Poly, ranked 24th at the time, was telling, he said. The Mustangs (15-1) haven't lost since. Pitt went on to sweep perennial powerhouse Washington (11-3).
Outside hitter Kayla Lund, a sophomore from Pasadena, California, continues to emerge as a star for Pitt. Maybe it didn't make sense to everyone why her list of recruiting visits included a bunch of schools an easy drive away in her home state and one more that can be a 10-hour trek if it includes a layover.
She visited Pittsburgh three times before making her decision.
"I had no expectations for Pitt," said Lund, who also considered USC and San Diego. "I hadn't talked to Fish (aka Dan Fisher) that many times. I just fell in love with the school."
She likes the urban feel of the Steel City where three rivers converge, and she appreciates the hybrid Pitt campus. She hasn't abandoned her Dodgers in favor of the Pirates, but Steelers, Penguins and especially Panthers get her stoked.
"We're trying to make Pitt a volleyball school," she said.
Lund is doing her part with 214 kills and 22 aces, both top marks for the Panthers. She's already surpassed her ace total from all of last season and will likely overtake last fall's total of 230 kills this weekend when Pitt hosts Syracuse (8-4) and Boston College (12-4).
Layne Van Buskirk, a 6-3 middle hitter, has shored up the middle, and Kylee Levers, a backup setter the last two years, imposes a physicality at the net that has made Pitt a better blocking team.
"We care a lot," Lund said. "We practice in here every day from 2 until 5 and we're all here an hour before practice and 30 to 45 minutes after. We're doing the dirty work, whatever can give us an edge. We're journaling, watching film, doing everything in our power to make this happen."
Lund has been indoctrinated to the regional rivalry between Pitt and Penn State, notable in football where the adversaries have played 99 times. In volleyball, the Nittany Lions lead the series 32-17 and have won 16 straight, including eliminating Pitt from the last two NCAA tournaments.
"I do feel we're in their shadow and deservedly so," Fisher said. "The run they had, especially the last 10 years, has been pretty remarkable."
But Pitt is actually ranked a spot ahead of Penn State (11-3) these days. Of course, Penn State has that gauntlet called the Big Ten to plow through and fell in the poll after dropping back-to-back matches against heavyweight Minnesota and spoiler Ohio State. (The Nittany Lions won a pair on the road over the weekend at Michigan State and Michigan.)
"It's definitely cool," Lund said. "It's weird to see our name above them. We'd love to play them again."
That would have to be in the NCAA tournament, where Fisher has modest goals considering Pitt's unblemished record.
While it's nice to be undefeated, "Our goal is to host a first-round game," he said. "When I first got here, not everybody knew Pitt even had a volleyball team. Now they might not know the specifics, but they know we have a good program."
Elsewhere in college volleyball last week:
• Tulsa (11-4) defeated Wichita State (7-7) on Saturday in five -- check the wild score: 39-41, 25-20, 18-25, 25-15, 19-17. It's the first loss for the Shockers in the 22 games they've played since joining the American Athletic Conference in 2017.
• Nebraska's Lauren Stivrins had 10 kills on 10 swings against Northwestern on Friday to become the third player in Huskers history to have a perfect hitting percentage with at least 10 kills. Against Illinois, Mikaela Foecke led Nebraska (13-1) with 13 kills and 11 digs.
• Keep an eye on Arizona (14-2). The Wildcats earned victories at Oregon and Oregon State over the weekend. Remember these Wildcats remain the lone Pac-12 team to snatch a set from Stanford (12-1), which swept UCLA and USC last week.