The University of San Francisco’s athletic history is noteworthy for many reasons. 

But volleyball is not one of them — yet. 

The school boasts basketball greats Bill Russell and KC Jones and the only football program to have three players who became NFL Hall of Famers (Bob St. Clair, Ollie Matson, Gino Marchetti) on the same team.

Meanwhile, USF volleyball, a member of the West Coast Conference since 1985, has never won a conference championship, had a conference player of the year or freshman of the year. 

Oh, and the Dons went 0-25 last season.

That’s why this year’s early 6-0 record under second-year coach Diogo Silva is so significant.

“I am like a freshman as a coach,” Silva admitted. “But I truly believe if you do not have a good character, they (the players) will not follow you.”

USF has victories over Montana State, St. Thomas, Grand Canyon, Louisiana Tech,  Seattle U and Fresno State, the last two in five.

On Friday, the Dons play at home against CSUN. They will play Penn on Saturday.

The transformation “started one year ago,” said the 44-year-old Silva. “It seems like we came from nowhere, but we are getting the players we want into the program. We brought players in who have good ball control and good serve receive. Then we can have better options.” 

After longtime coach Frank Lavrisha retired, Silva, who had been with the program for a year as an assistant, was promoted to head coach.

Silva got busy and said he combed through footage of no fewer than 2,000 players between the transfer portal and high school. Accordingly, the USF roster is like the United Nations of volleyball. Of the 16, nine come from outside the U.S. — from Argentina, Russia, Bulgaria, Italy, Croatia, the Netherlands, Israel, and two from Brazil, which is where Silva is from. To balance that out a bit, three players are from Southern California and two are from Texas. 

San Francisco’s Orsula Staka/Chris M. Leung for USF Dons Athletics

Bulgarian sophomore Maria Petkova, a 5-foot-11 outside hitter, was the MVP of the Montana State tournament. She transferred from Florida Southwestern State College in Fort Myers. Claire Crijns, a physical 6-2 right-side grad student from Maastricht, Netherlands, is second on the team in blocks and kills and first in aces.

Abby Wadas is a freshman libero from McKinney, Texas, and 6-3 middle Lindsay Oldendorf is a freshman from Lockport, Illinois. They’ve blended with a roster that includes setter Aylen Ayub, a sophomore from Argentina who was an All-WCC honorable-mention selection last year, and team leader Orsula Staka, a 6-4 senior middle blocker from Dubrovnik, Croatia. 

“(There is) no secret. It has been a lot of work,” Silva said. “It’s organic chemistry between the players. We did not force anything. They are really willing to play the system that we coach here.”

Silva also plays the percentages. 

“We forget the lines. We don’t play with the players on the line. We try to protect more of the middle of the court. It was like the 1980s and 1990s (overseas) when the players put their feet on the line. We will block the line if a player hits there four or five times in a row. We practice ball control every day. In the college situation, you need to know how to control the ball. If I have a good ball control, you can win a lot of matches.”

Getting into coaching

Silva has had somewhat of a meteoric rise as a coach. He retired as a player from the Brazilian SuperLega just three years ago, in 2019, after competing for 24 years at the highest professional levels. “In June our club season finished,” Silva recalled. “My wife got an offer to come to the U.S., to San Francisco, for a financial job in accounting. In turn, my offer (to continue playing) was not the same as when I was 30, and it was time to retire to better opportunities for her and our three kids. She had followed me a lot in my career.”

And so the Silvas packed up and moved to the Bay Area. Silva started as a volunteer with the Absolute Club in nearby San Rafael. 

“Absolute gave me the opportunity to coach,” he said. “I love the game of course. Then I started loving the relationship with the players, how to make them better. And they give back to me. Like I was a better person and a better coach every time I went into the gym. But the club system was more like client and business. I was frustrated with the lack of engagement. Players were more like a client, where I can’t say anything to them. So I got to college where it is more like a professional relationship.”

At first, Silva targeted the three programs closest to his new home: Cal, Stanford and USF. His goal was to be a volunteer assistant and learn from the best. Lavrisha made an offer.

“Frank was very good,” Silva recalled. “He said ‘I will give you one week of practice and if you do well, you will run practice for the whole season.’ I had always heard that the volunteer did just the statistics. I said I will work hard to show the opportunity of what I know.” 

“Diogo first caught my eye when I would watch practices in the fall at Frank’s behest,” said USF athletics director Joan McDermott at the time of Silva’s hiring in May 2021. “Then I got to spend the spring season analyzing him, watching how he would create and lead practices, observing his demeanor with our student-athletes. 

“I knew at that time he was head-coach material. His professional playing experience, combined with his unsurpassed knowledge and passion for the game, leads me to believe he is exactly the right person to build on the foundation Frank has given us.”

Silva’s coaching philosophies were shaped by his time playing in professional leagues in numerous volleyball hotbeds. 

“I was very lucky to be coached by Argentines, some Brazilians and some Italians,” he said. “The Brazilian is a tough style, Argentines they talk more and get to know you as a person, more like a teacher. As a player, I was not necessarily inspired by (three-time Olympic medalist and three-time World Champion) Giba, but by players who worked very hard like Bruno (Rezende), the captain of the national team. (He is) not very talented, but an amazing leader. He worked hard every single day.”

If there is any one coach who provided the Silva blueprint, it would have to be the Argentine Horacio Dileo, now heading up the club team in Cannes, France. 

“He understands the people. He is a very particular amazing teacher of volleyball,” Silva said. “He would try to find the right key for every single player. If you can do that you can be a good coach. A player is above all a person.”

WCC season looms large

Now Silva’s attention is all on San Francisco.

“We start very slowly in games,” Silva said. “If the games were played up to ten, we would lose every game. That is our weakness right now. The good thing is that we play well under pressure. We hit .350 in pressure situations. But the players get exhausted, and I get exhausted as a coach.”

The schedule gets tougher for the Dons. A week from Friday, they head to Colorado to face UC San Diego at Air Force in the altitude of Colorado Springs and then make the drive to play Denver the same day. 

All of that is an appetizer to the West Coast Conference schedule. And, per usual, the WCC is absolutely loaded this year with three top-25 teams — No. 10 BYU, No. 12 San Diego and No. 24 Pepperdine.

“BYU and San Diego this season are amazing, as well as Pepperdine,” Silva said. “USD has players that have been in the system for so long. But, if they give the opportunity to us, we will take it. We will go into the match thinking about playing our best. This way it takes a lot of pressure off the players because we focus in the present.”

In 37 seasons, the highest USF has finished in the WCC was second, in 2008. That also was the only time the Dons made it to the NCAA Tournament. But when 0-25 turns into 6-0, it shows that anything can happen.

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