By Chuck Curti for VolleyballMag.com
When 17-year-old Pittsburgh freshman setter Lexis Akeo decided to gravitate to volleyball, her motivation wasn’t unusual: She learned to love the game by watching her older sisters play.
Then again, a fear of softball also might have swayed her decision.
The Akeo siblings — Lexis is the youngest of five, with two sisters and two brothers — grew up around sports in Kapolei, Hawai’i, on the island of Oahu. They spent a lot of their childhood in gyms, on fields or just running around.
Lexis tried softball as a young girl but quickly soured on the experience.
“I got beaned too many times and was scared of the ball,” she said with her trademark giggle. “My sisters loved (volleyball), so I tried it out and I have loved it ever since.”
So she took up volleyball as an 11-year-old. Just six years later, she is piloting the offense of the No. 2 team in the country. As a freshman, Akeo is enjoying a more significant role after red-shirt junior Kylee Levers sustained an ACL injury during the first week of practice.
Now Pitt enters its Friday match against Georgia Tech — one of three teams tied for second place, three games back in the ACC — 12-0 in the conference and 23-1 overall. The No. 2 ranking — its second straight week at that spot — is the highest in program history. Its No. 4 standing in the latest NCAA RPI also is a program best.
Behind the likes of seniors Stephanie Williams and Layne Van Buskirk and juniors Kayla Lund and Chinaza Ndee, the Panthers lead the ACC in hitting percentage (.274, 16th nationally), total kills (1,223) and assists (13.64, fifth nationally).
Pitt has dropped just one set in ACC play and is riding a program-best streak of eight consecutive sweeps.
In the middle of it is Akeo, who won’t turn 18 until December 13.
And just imagine: that’s less than a week before her team could be at home for the NCAA final four, December 19 and 21 at Pittsburgh’s PPG Paints Arena. This week, Akeo extended her program record with her sixth ACC Freshman of the Week honor.
“I think she has exceeded (expectations) in many ways, and, in other ways, she is still working on parts of her game,” Panthers coach Dan Fisher said. “She’s made some adjustments in her delivery, and that takes time, but she’s doing a great job with it.
“How much tactical information do we give her? We want her on the court playing free and playing loose and making the magic happen, but we also want her to set to the percentages.”
Akeo is picking up where her sister, Kamalani, left off last fall. During her tenure with the Panthers, Kamalani Akeo was the 2016 ACC Setter of the Year and a 2017 All-ACC first-team selection.
Kamalani also followed in the footsteps of an older sister, Lesli, who was a standout volleyball player at Siena. Lesli Akeo was inducted into the Siena Athletics Hall of Fame in 2018, and her bio calls her “arguably the greatest defensive player in program history.”
But Lesli’s college playing days ended just about the time Lexis was taking up the game, so it was Kamalani who was Lexis’ idol.
“I don’t think I personally tried to influence Lexis to play volleyball as much as she was naturally influenced to do it,” said Kamalani via email from the Czech Republic, where she is playing professionally. “We always felt like we had the freedom to pursue what we wanted. Our family’s lifestyle sort of just molded us into loving the sport.”
Growing up in Hawai’i didn’t hurt, either. Volleyball is huge there, and Lexis estimated there are about 50 girls from the islands playing Division I volleyball. Among the most prominent are Jhenna Gabriel, the setter for No. 1 Texas, and Saige Ka’aha’aina-Torres, the setter for No. 16 Utah, one of Pitt’s early season victims. (Akeo had 51 assists and 10 digs vs. the Utes on September 14.)
Lexis and Kamalani agreed coming from Hawai’i contributes to their laid-back, even-keeled personalities. And Lexis needed every bit of that easy-going demeanor when she was thrust into the spotlight a little sooner than expected.
Early in Pitt’s preseason camp, redshirt junior setter Kylee Levers, the heir-apparent to Kamalani, suffered a torn ACL that ended her season.
“I think the hope going in was to run a 6-2 if we could,” Fisher said, thinking that redshirt-freshman Maddie Soboleski or Akeo would get into the mix if either was ready. “Then, if they weren’t, we were going to run a 5-1 with Kylee.”
Lexis, naturally, turned to her older sister for guidance. She knew being Hawai’i’s high school player of the year and a national top-100 recruit wouldn’t carry any weight on the collegiate level.
She would have to prove herself to a talented, seasoned group.
“Lexis did contact me after (Levers’) injury,” Kamalani said. “Our conversation focused less around the fact that she would be starting in games and more around the fact that she needed to get a lot better in a really short amount of time.
“The advice I gave her was to stay focused and expect to have to work really hard. This is the position that you want to be in.”
Lexis did start putting in more time at the gym, and the effort was not lost on her veteran teammates.
“I think as a team we are always coming in for extra reps, and I think she’s taken that very seriously,” Williams said.
Added Van Buskirk: “She knows she’s on the court with so much experience, so she knows she has to come in and do extra. She watches so much video and does so many extra reps.”
Even having watched her sister’s games — mostly online and a couple in person — Akeo needed to get in the trenches to be able to learn the preferences of all Pitt’s hitters. She said the most challenging part was getting her timing with middle hitters Van Buskirk and sophomore Sabrina Starks.
At 5-foot-8, Lexis said, she is considered on the tall side in her home state. The tall girls in Hawai’i, she said are 6-feet, so setting to teammates 6-2 and 6-3 was new.
“They’re just bigger, taller, more athletic girls,” Akeo said, “so it’s really just finding the right height for them. I feel like the middles are a key component in our offense, so I feel like I have to get them into the game.”
Her teammates did their best to ease any pressure Akeo might have been feeling. They made her understand they didn’t need perfect sets, just good sets.
They also made sure to take care of her off the court. Though she is four and five years younger than several of her teammates, Akeo said they go out of their way to ask if she needs anything or to hang out with her when the pangs of homesickness strike.
That, Akeo said, is a big reason she decided to follow her sister to Pitt. She heard so much about the team culture and how each player genuinely cares for the others, and she hasn’t been disappointed.
The toughest part of being so far from Hawai’i for the first time has been adjusting to the Pittsburgh climate.
“I started wearing my parka back in like October when it reached like the 60s,” she said, again through her infectious giggle. “The program is definitely way better than I thought. The girls are way better than I thought. They’re like sisters to me … I love them.”
Because Akeo adjusted so smoothly, Fisher ended up running a 5-1 after all, with her as the “1.” She has played every set in every match, amassing 852 assists (10.65 per set, third in the ACC), 148 digs and 21 aces.
But as solid as her numbers have been, Akeo is only beginning to scratch the surface, which might be a scary thought for the rest of the conference. Fisher said she already is “in the conversation” regarding the ACC’s top setters.
“She is way better than me at the same age,” Kamalani said. “Volleyball just comes really easy to her, and it always has. She has worked hard to get where she is, but I think she is definitely very gifted.”
While such a compliment from her older sister might be uplifting, Akeo isn’t concerned with comparisons. She is more interested in doing whatever she can to keep Pitt in contention for a national championship.
Considering the results, she is succeeding in her mission, one that is just beginning.
“I definitely dreamed about playing on a team this good, and just the support from everyone has been very helpful,” she said. “I just think in terms of the team and just giving them as much as I can give.”
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