Less than one month after concluding its record-breaking NCAA tournament run, Pitt volleyball has already begun the biggest rebuild in recent memory.
At the end of the 2021 season Pitt bid farewell to several of its most important players to graduation — namely at the outside hitter position. Kayla Lund and Chinaza Ndee highlight the group of departing hitters, along with Leketor Member-Meneh, who in just one season with the Panthers earned AVCA All-America Honors and was instrumental in the team’s road to the Final Four.
But it didn’t take long for the Panthers to announce they’d be receiving reinforcements.
The team announced Jan. 6 that sophomore outside hitter Julianna Dalton officially completed her transfer to Pitt from Washington State, marking the first acquisition of the 2022 offseason.
In just one season with the Cougars, Dalton made a strong impression in the Pac-12, notching 151 kills in 16 games, including 14 against Western Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament. Her performances ultimately earned her Pac-12 All-Freshman Team honors.
Hailing from Parker, Colorado, Dalton is one of seven kids in her family, all of whom went onto play college sports. Her three older sisters all played NCAA volleyball.
Dalton’s high school coach Amanda West said in her tenure at Chaparral High School, she coached both Julianna and her younger sister Katie to a state championship in 2019. As a public school that couldn’t recruit, West said she would often throw Dalton into other positions when the team was low on personnel to show off its versatility and athleticism.
“In high school obviously, we’re not recruiting so we just have whoever walks into our gym,” West said. “There were times that I had to throw her in the middle, so she was a middle for us, she was a right side for us, she was an outside for us, she just did whatever we needed her to do and did an amazing job … She wasn’t specialized in any position, she was just a true athlete.”
In her senior year at Chaparral, Dalton notched several prestigious accolades, including being named the Colorado Gatorade Player of the Year and an ACVA Second Team All-American.
Apart from totaling 313 kills in her senior season, Dalton also racked up 90 total blocks — a high number for an outside hitter. At 6-foot-5, Dalton became the tallest player on the roster by three inches, making her look more like a middle blocker than an outside hitter.
Despite her height and experience at middle blocker in high school, head coach Dan Fisher intends to use her as an outside hitter in his lineup.
“She would play on the left and probably on the right,” Fisher said. “It’s how we recruited her, and that’s what we expect from her.”
While the position change isn’t in Fisher’s plans for Dalton, she said she is ready to play wherever the team needs her to, even if it’s not at outside hitter. West believes that Dalton can play anywhere she wants to, and that it was one of the reasons she was so attractive to schools in the recruiting process.
While Fisher said he began recruiting Dalton to Pitt during her time at Chaparral, it was Washington State that originally won her over three years ago. When Pitt faced off against the Cougars last season, Dalton’s absence from the lineup made the Panther coaching staff renew its recruiting efforts a few months ago.
“We played Washington State at the start of the year and going into that game we had expected to see Julianna,” Fisher said. “We found out just a week prior that she wouldn’t be suiting up so we were kind of trying to figure out what was going on with her, is she going to be playing? Then, shortly thereafter, she’s on the portal and we started recruiting.”
In just two weeks with the Panthers, Fisher has already noticed Dalton’s strengths, both tangible and intangible. He said her physical traits and abilities on the court stood out, but was surprised at how open she’s been to learn.
“She’s a tall player who moves well and can play six rotations,” Fisher said. “We knew she was competitive — we knew she was a hard worker. So, what I’ve seen in the first two weeks that’s a bit of a surprise is just how much of a learner she is and how eager she is to be coached … I think it’s exciting to go to someone like that who’s so talented. ”
According to West, Dalton’s leadership and ability to make her teammates feel comfortable make her stand out from other players.
“She is one of those players that makes the people around her better,” West said. “She just holds herself to a high standard so people around her elevate their play … She was able to just empower the people around her to play their best, which I think is probably one of the highest compliments I can give.”
Although she didn’t have interest in Pitt out of high school, Pitt immediately jumped to the top of her list when Fisher and his staff came calling during her time in the transfer portal. A combination of the Panthers’ recent success on the court and her synergy with the coaching staff played key roles in pushing her toward transferring to Pitt.
“[Pitt] was always kind of at the top of my list,” Dalton said. “They’re really good and I like the coaches a lot, so that’s mostly why I’m here, because of the coaches. On my visit I loved all the girls on the team as well.”
Dalton had a chance before her commitment to talk with Lund and Member-Meneh, who both spoke highly about their time at Pitt. According to Dalton, Lund even got emotional talking about her career with the Panthers and Lund’s passion was something that stood out.
“When I came on my visit, I actually had a really good talk with Kayla about her experience here,” Dalton said. “I talked to Leketor a lot about how her transfer process was and how much she enjoyed it, so I learned a lot from them. Kayla teared up when she was talking to me, she’s like, ‘I just love this program,’ so that was really cool to see.”
Fisher said with her talent and versatility, he expects Dalton to contribute right out of the gate. Dalton recognized that she won’t be handed anything in her new environment, and is embracing the challenge of competing for her playing time.
“I’m excited to compete,” Dalton said. “I think there’s a lot of competition on this team, and I love that — I think it makes everyone better. So, I definitely am going to compete for a spot and am excited to contribute in any way I can.”
Before even stepping on the court in the blue and gold, Dalton has already established a concrete set of goals for herself and the team. With four years of eligibility left, she looks forward to doing everything in her power to achieve those goals.
“I would love to win a National Championship,” Dalton said. “That’s the ultimate goal, I think that’d be really awesome. And then I’d definitely want to become an All-American here as well.”