This year’s NCAA women’s volleyball final four will be held at Sprint Center next month, and players with Kansas City roots are hoping for a homecoming.
Five volleyball players from Kansas City-area high schools are hoping to repeat last year’s success in the tournament. Their teams—Stanford, Minnesota and Texas—made it to the final four in 2016.
A golden year for Kansas City volleyball
The year 2015 marked a golden year for girls volleyball on the high school scene. Leading the way for St. James Academy that year were Audriana Fitzmorris and Jenna Gray. With that 1-2 punch, the St. James Thunder won three Kansas state championships in their four years, so Fitzmorris and Gray grabbed most of the attention from college recruiters.
But they were two of five players from the Kansas City area who were high school All-Americans. The other three: Orie Agbaji of Oak Park High School, Regan Pittman of St. Thomas Aquinas and Alexis Hart of Truman. All five traveled to Omaha in ‘15 to play in the Under Armour all-star game, and while there, they had an opportunity to attend the NCAA final four.
Hart says she enjoyed watching Minnesota because that’s where she was headed, “I felt like I was one of the fans. I was like, ‘Go!’ I really didn’t feel like I was going there the next year. I felt like I was more like supporting them in the fan section, just really rooting for them. It was pretty cool.”
Regan Pittman would become Hart’s teammate at Minnesota. Pittman’s mother, Monica Pittman says, watching the Under Armour game, the impact of Kansas City volleyball sunk in
“That night I’m sitting in the stands thinking, ‘Wow, this is my kid.’ We never anticipated this level of play,” says Monica Pittman, who played volleyball at Colby junior college in Colby, Kansas. “To sit there and watch, it really made us…realize the level of competition we had seen in Kansas City.”
All five players go to the final four
Then a funny thing happened last year.
All five of the Kansas City area players in that high school all-star game made it back to volleyball’s final four for their respective college teams. Of the five, only the 6-foot-5 Regan Pittman didn’t play.
Pittman sat out the year because Minnesota’s starting middle blocker, Hannah Tapp, was a senior All-American. Her most difficult and helpless moment was watching her friend the 6-foot-6 Fitzmorris, end the Gophers’ season in the one of the NCAA tournament national semifinal matches.
Playing for Stanford, the St. James tandem of Fitzmorris and Gray turned out to be major contributors as freshmen. In the NCAA championship game against Texas, with Oak Park’s Agbaji on the Longhorns, the Stanford Cardinal won the national title.
Another chance to meet
This season with Fitzmorris and Gray, Stanford as the tournament’s No. 3 seed, appears primed to defend its NCAA title in Kansas City. Fitzmorris says last year’s national title made being far from home in Palo Alto, California worthwhile, “We learned a lot during the year and for it to culminate into a national championship was a dream-come-true,” she says. “It was unbelievable.”
Meanwhile in Minnesota, the Gophers, seeded seventh in the tournament, were ranked No. 1 early this season.
One of the reasons for their early success was the play of Regan Pittman. She made an impact right away with a season-high 15 kills against Tennessee during the first weekend of September. If the Gophers live up to their lofty expectations, Pittman says she may find herself among friends in Kansas City—just like last year.
“Yes, we were fighting for the same thing, but we’re all friends off the court and have a really decent connection with each other and knowing the respect for opponents is really powerful,” says Pittman.
Of the five 2015 high school All-Americans from Kansas City, only Agbaji is hard-pressed to find playing time this season. The Big 12 champion Texas Longhorns brought in the country’s top-ranked freshmen class according to volleyballmag.com to mix in with an outstanding core of seniors.
Agbaji played in only five matches, but says she’s staying positive her time will come. In the meantime, she adds, “Keep an eye out for Texas volleyball this year. We’re going to do some pretty great things.”
It could be a class of 2015 reunion. The 64-team NCAA tournament begins on Thursday.
Greg Echlin is a freelance sports reporter for KCUR 89.3.