Injuries hopefully behind her, Kayla Lund leads Pitt’s charge into NCAA regional

Kayla Lund serving for Pittsburgh/Alex Mowrey, Pitt Athletics

She didn’t need to be reminded, but Kayla Lund couldn’t ignore the notifications on her smartphone.

In the week leading up to the 2021 NCAA Tournament, the Pittsburgh super senior outside hitter kept seeing photo “memories” pop up on her phone. Some of them flashed back to December 2018, when an injury forced Lund to sit out Pitt’s second-round matchup with Michigan.

That day, Zoi Faki, a seldom-used redshirt sophomore, was called on to fill in for Lund, who recently had earned her inaugural first-team All-ACC honor. Faki performed admirably — 12 kills, 23 digs and two block assists — and certainly did nothing to hinder the Panthers’ chances.

Still, it wasn’t the same as having a bona fide match-altering star on the floor. Pitt ultimately lost in five to Michigan.

It was a huge disappointment for the Panthers, who, after a 30-1 regular season, were hosting the first two rounds of the tournament for the first time.

So when Lund suffered an upper-body injury late in the 2021 regular season, she hoped it wouldn’t be a case of deja vu.

“It’s poor timing that my body chooses to act up,” said Lund, now able to laugh off the setback.

This edition of the NCAA Tournament, after all, brought yet another first for Pitt’s burgeoning program: A coveted top-four seed.

As a result, the third-seeded Panthers are home for the NCAA Regional. After beating UMBC and then Penn State, they play Kansas (18-11) on Thursday. Kansas scored a couple of upsets last weekend, first surprising Oregon and then ousting 14th-seeded Creighton. The winner plays the winner of the earlier match between No. 6 Purdue (25-6) and No. 11 BYU (30-1) for a spot in the NCAA national semifinals.

After missing the final two ACC regular-season matches and then making just a cameo appearance in a first-round sweep of UMBC, Lund returned to full action against Penn State. And it looked as if she was never away.

Lund, a 6-footer from Pasadena, California, had 21 kills, hit .421, and had 10 digs, two aces and four block assists as the Panthers vanquished the Big Ten’s Penn State in four sets. It was Pittsburgh’s first victory over the Nittany Lions in the NCAA Tournament.

“I’m doing OK,” Lund said Tuesday when asked about her physical condition after her first full match since November 19. “Our game plan this week is to keep it pretty regular for me, not try to do anything too crazy for me. Because whatever we’ve been doing with the limit I have, obviously, has been working.

“I was definitely feeling a little sore all over just because I hadn’t taken a whole lot of jumps or swings in a while. But it was worth it.”

The injury forced Lund to sit out the Panthers’ regular-season matches at Clemson on Nov. 21 and at home against top-ranked Louisville on Nov. 24.

The Louisville match was especially difficult for Lund to miss. Not only was it a chance to knock off the No. 1 team in the country, it was Lund’s final home match as a Panther.

While Pitt (28-3), technically, is home for the NCAA Tournament, those matches are being played at spacious Petersen Events Center, home to the school’s men’s and women’s basketball teams. The Panthers’ regular-season matches take place just up the hill at cozy Fitzgerald Field House.

That is where Lund made most of her memories en route to becoming a four-time ACC first-teamer and a spring 2021 first-team All-American. It is where she accumulated the majority of her 1,320 career kills (and counting) and led the Panthers to three ACC titles.

“Man, that was really tough, and it was emotional for me on the inside,” Lund said. “At the same time … I am one person, and this is a big team. Whatever I am going through right now does not matter.

“I told myself, ‘If you’re going to be emotional about it, frustrated about it, whatever, be it when you’re alone and away from the girls.’ My main focus for that (Louisville) game was just putting 100% of what I could give on the bench: telling the girls what I’m seeing, helping them from the sideline, cheering my butt off, losing my voice, bringing good vibes.”

In a more tangible sense, Lund said she focused on helping 6-1 sophomore outside Valeria Vazquez Gomez, who started in Lund’s place.

The product of Manati, Puerto Rico, fared well in Lund’s absence, collecting six kills in a win over Clemson and six more in a loss to Louisville. Vazquez Gomez also started against UMBC in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, posting seven kills, 11 digs and two block assists.

Against Penn State, even with Lund back at full participation and at her dominant best, Vazquez Gomez still had an impact. She was at the service line as Pitt scored the final four points of the match. Her most important contribution might have been serving an ace that put Pitt up 24-23.

The Panthers closed out Penn State on the next point.

Kayla Lund/Alex Mowrey, Pitt Athletics

Lund stopped short of calling Vazquez Gomez a player she has taken under her wing. Rather, she said theirs is a mutually beneficial relationship, one that has helped her to excel as well.

“She helps me a ton and inspires me a ton,” Lund said. “She’s such a joyful and happy and beautiful soul, and she brings such a positivity every day.

“Throughout my older years here, you kind of tend to lose that freshman energy and vibes. But she has done a great job maintaining that, and she really has helped me find a lot of joy in every single day. She has the biggest smile. She’s always smiling.”

Lund said the past few days have been an interesting mix of euphoria over defeating Penn State and getting focused for the Jayhawks.

“Volleyball-wise, we’re locked in and ready for the next game,” she said. “In an emotional sense, we just got pictures, and we’re seeing videos … we’re rewatching the game in film sessions and stuff like that. So in that sense, it’s still awesome.

“Even if it were any other team, getting to the Sweet 16 is still an emotional moment. But, obviously, there was a little bit more tension on the game just because it was Penn State.”

The Pitt offense is powerful and balanced. Fifth-year senior Chinaza Ndee leads with 351 kills, senior transfer Leketor Member-Meneh has 319, Lund 317, and senior transfer Serena Gray 235.

Lund said she and her teammates are doing their best to block out distractions – limiting their social media use, etc. – so they can concentrate on their final exams, which also are taking place this week, and their preparation for Thursday.

There’s one other thing Lund has in the back of her mind: The future.

Whether it’s one more match or four more matches, her collegiate volleyball career rapidly is coming to a close. But she said her playing days are far from over.

Lund plans to turn pro. It’s just a matter of the timing.

She finished her undergraduate degree — a double major in communications and psychology — in three-and-a-half years and is in the final stages of earning her master’s degree in applied developmental psychology. She is scheduled to graduate in the spring, but she had entertained thoughts of turning pro after the new year and finishing her degree online.

The recent injury has made her rethink that plan. Now, she said, she is leaning toward finishing her degree, staying on campus to train with the team then turning pro in the summer or fall.

“I don’t want to start a pro career at not 100%,” she said.

In the meantime, she is on a mission to get the Panthers to their first national semifinals. They came agonizingly close last season before losing to Washington in the regional final. Pitt was one point from closing out the Huskies in four sets, but Washington rallied to force a fifth set that the Huskies ultimately won.

For her part, Lund looks at hardships such as the loss to Washington and her injuries as opportunities for growth. And she hopes she and the team have grown enough that, when her smartphone sends her photo memories next year at this time, she will be able to look back on a national title.

“I am a strong believer that everything happens for a reason,” she said. “And I do believe that what we have gone through in the past is only to help us succeed now.

“We know our good is good enough to win. We don’t have to do anything out of our norm, anything that’s crazy. If we chip away point by point, we know that we can come out and compete with anyone.”

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