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How USF Volleyball Is Quietly Making One Sport's Most Dramatic Transformation

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Drills and formations are marked on whiteboards on the USF Volleyball practice field. There is a single quotation mark in the upper left corner.

It’s the mantra most fitting for Don.

They went 0-25 one season ago. Their last win was on March 26, 2021. A tough spring campaign amid the pandemic has come to an end. They won 11 sets throughout the Fall 2021 season.

Now, USF is 7-1 after winning the first six games in their best start to the season since 2015 and the fourth-best start in program history.

“We have a plan,” said second-year coach Diogo Silva. “I think we have the talent. It’s been a very difficult year for everyone. But everyone feels comfortable with the new people on the team.”

Ausla Staka, the only senior USF volleyball player, can’t admit to being surprised at how the start of the season has gone, but says each win brings an emotional release.

“It can’t get any worse than last year,” Staka said. “There’s pressure to show that we’ve worked really hard and spent the entire spring and summer fixing it, and to show everyone what we can do.”

When Isadora Nicolai was considering a transfer for graduation season, something about USF stood out. Despite the daunting prospect of joining a team whose previous season had been the worst in program history, she felt it was a worthy project.

“I believed what my coach told me,” she said. “He knew it was a project and said something would happen here.”

A graduate of Auburn College in Montgomery, Nicolai is one of three alumni on the roster. Starter Claire Klins has moved from Holland and Anna Petrova from his UConn.

USF suffered their first loss to Cal State Northridge on Friday, taking a 2-0 lead and being 3-2 heartbreakers in five sets that reached match point several times.

Saturday’s Penn game that could have spiraled after the Dons built another 2-0 lead. But they learned from their mistakes. The third set was the most competitive, going back and forth until USF pulled away and claimed a sweep. It showed definite signs of progress from last season.

“After last season, we are going all out,” said sophomore Siya Richardson.

The Staka have yet to see a winning season, with the Dons going 8-21 in their freshman year, then an 8-10 spring season, followed by a dismal fall of 2021.

“I want to fix what happened last year,” Staka said.

USF traveled to Bozeman, Montana to kick off the season’s three-game tournament. In the opening game against hosts Montana State, the Dons lost his 2–0 loss. They’ve seen this story before.

“We knew the team would get nervous if we didn’t keep our cool,” said Silva.

But something was wrong. Instead of flinching, Dons remained calm and confident as he played two tight sets, the fifth he won 15-9.

“I was happy because the day didn’t start with a win. It starts with recruiting and building a team,” says Sliva. “That way we can achieve what we have been working towards.”

It was the first win in over a year and the first since Silva took over as head coach.

“Everyone was crying,” said libero freshman Abby Wadass.

It was a moment of relief and catharsis for a program that was wiped out during the pandemic and showcased one of the youngest rosters in the country. I emphasized what was new.