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Pitt volleyball prepares to host NCAA Tournament for the first time

Jerry DiPaola
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When the current seniors on Pitt’s volleyball team were freshmen in 2014, there was no need for the maintenance workers at Fitzgerald Field House to pull down the auxiliary bleachers for a match.

“They’ve been here before, back when there were two parents in the stands,” coach Dan Fisher said of his seniors.

Angela Seman, a fifth-year senior from Seneca Valley, smiles at the memory, one that seems especially distant today.

“My family was half, if not more than half, of the fan base,” she said.

Those days are gone, a fact that has been underscored repeatedly this season. Pitt is 29-1, a two-time ACC champion and the host Friday and Saturday nights at Petersen Events Center for first- and second-round games of the NCAA Tournament.

Michigan plays Navy in the opener Friday at 4 p.m., followed by Iona vs. Pitt at 7 p.m.

Pitt set two attendance records this season, first drawing 2,152 to the Louisville game Oct. 21. Three weeks later on Nov. 11, a crowd of 3,179 showed up for the Duke game when Pitt avenged its only loss of the season.

Even last Wednesday when students were away on Thanksgiving break, the match with Georgia Tech attracted 2,898 to the Pete. The team changed venues in hopes the NCAA would grant Pitt two home games to open the Tournament, and it did for the first time in school history.

This is Pitt’s third consecutive venture into the tournament, having defeated Dayton and VCU in 2016 and ‘17 before losing to Penn State in both seasons.

Fisher believes this team might be different.

He’s shored up some weaknesses, especially around the net, since last season, taking advantage of the program’s increased notoriety after two tournament appearances.

“I certainly wouldn’t feel like it would be a failure, as a season, if we lost one of these games,” he said. “It’s been a great year. The message to the team is more we don’t have to win. We just really want to.”

Junior Nika Markovic said the difference is the “vibe we have.”

“We are really close. We spend so much time together on the court. We hang out off the court, 24-7. We are just like a big family.”

The family extends to Markovic’s native Slovenia, where her parents, Zlatko Markovic and Smilja Vozlic, stream every game.

“My mom and my dad, they watch every single game, no matter if they have to stay up to 5 a.m. It’s amazing,” she said.

Fisher said he recruited many of the players on the team when Pitt’s RPI was in the 90s. Today, Pitt’s RPI is 7, and he’s pleased with its No. 12 overall seed in the tournament.

Plus, Fisher was named ACC Coach of the Year for the second consecutive season, an honor he appreciates but places far down the list of achievements.

“It’s always nice to get recognized,” he said, “but I’ve been around long enough to know it’s not going to change my life one bit.

“The stuff that means more is having a team that cares about each other, having a group that we feel good about making a run and the fan base.”

The Pitt fan base will have choices this weekend, with the men’s basketball team playing Duquesne in the annual City Game on Friday and the football team in Charlotte, N.C., on Saturday for the ACC Championship Game.

“I guess the message is,” Fisher said, “you better be at a Pitt event. Hopefully, they choose volleyball.

“There are certain periods where you say, ‘Hey, there is nothing to cheer for.’ There’s a lot right now.”

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at [email protected] or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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