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Deep into the fourth set, Syracuse needed to close the gap. Up 2-1 in sets but down 18-16 against Pittsburgh, securing the fourth set would’ve given the Orange a win.
Middle blocker Abby Casiano threw her arms in the air and jumped after seeing an attack forming to her right side. The ball smacked her arms and exploded down on Pittsburgh’s side of the court. An eruption of cheers exploded from the Syracuse bench.
Although Syracuse dropped the set, Casiano’s block defined a strong game of defense that helped Syracuse recover against the Panthers in the fifth set.
Syracuse’s season-opener against Pittsburgh was different this year. Balls were disinfected and washed before every new server by a member of the Syracuse men’s club volleyball team. The Panthers and the Orange didn’t switch sides of the court between sets like they usually do, reducing contact by playing on the same side of the net. And with the help of 20 kills from Polina Shemanova, 51 assists from setter Elena Karakasi and some vital blocking from the front line, Syracuse (1-0, 1-0 Atlantic Coast) defeated Pittsburgh (0-1, 0-1) 3-2 in a season opening five-set thriller, handing the Panthers their first loss in ACC play since 2018.
“With Pitt, we know they run a very fast, fast offense, and they’re very very aggressive,” Casiano said. “It was very simple, stay on your toes, stay ready, and you don’t have to jump 500 feet in the air, you just have to get your hands over and press.”
Playing a very aggressive and skilled team such as Pitt, Shemanova and Casiano knew the Orange had to have strong attacks from anywhere on the floor. To have that kind of flexibility on offense, the defense needs to be dialed in, able to make tough digs that get back to the setter. With freshman libero Lauren Hogan making her first start, the front row ensured the back rows lives would be easy by getting a hand on dozens of hits.
Casiano’s quick and frequent blocking helped her rack up six total blocks, among dozens of other deflections. On the offensive side, she had 12 kills for 16 total points. But Pitt’s relentless offense took the first set 25-21, but the Orange came firing back in the second, riding a wave of strong rally’s, dominating 25-17.
Syracuse’s versatile offense was needed late in the third set. The Orange had set point at 24-18 and, in an attempt to ice the set and take the lead, the ball was set for Shemanova repeatedly. The Pitt defense was predicting sets to the powerful left-side hitter, and had blockers lined up against her every time. Pitt clawed back to tie it at 24, but with a quick set up the middle to Marina Markova, SU was able to take the frame 26-24.
“If you have no blocking it’s impossible to implement any system you want to play,” head coach Leonid Yelin said. “For the most part we did a good job, blocking wise. I have to be very happy today. It is impossible to be perfect, but I think we did a good job.”
Senior Panther right side hitter Chinaza Ndee had 21 kills on the night, while outside hitter Kayla Lund had 16. Late in the second set, Lund blasted a spike through three blockers for an authoritative kill. The fourth set was back and forth, with both teams blasting home points, seemingly forcing their team to victory. Despite being evenly matched, Pitt edged out the Orange to force a fifth and final set.
Most of the game was the Orange and Panthers trading blows. The crux of the Orange offense ran through Shemanova, Ella Saada and Casiano. Despite the strong performance and a win against a team that was ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation last year, Shemanova still said there was room for improvement on all sides of the game: blocking, digging and attacking.
Shemanova used all her skills — powerful line shots, cross-court daggers, deceptive feints and timely block swipes — to help Syracuse earn key points in the win. At the service line, she recorded an ace in the third set. In the final set, the Orange scored three straight points off of a Pitt attack error, where Lund drove the ball into the net, a Saada service ace, and the game ending block by Yuliia Yastrub and Cassiano. Syracuse took the set 15-9,and the game 3-2.
“I won’t lie, I was crying after the game because it was really emotional,” Shemanova said. “It was really hard, and I’m really glad we got out of that little hole that we got into emotionally. As a team, we came out together and we did it.”
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