Weishoff gives UCI volleyball a lift

Kari Pestolesi is living a dream.

Less than three weeks into the season, the UC Irvine junior outside hitter has already led the program to its first victory against a top-10 opponent and its first national ranking since 1988, and she was named the Sports Imports/AVCA Division I National Player of the Week after the Anteaters won the University of Nevada's Courtyard Marriott/Fairfield Invitational.

But best of all, she is playing volleyball for her long-time idol: first-year Anteaters head coach Paula Weishoff.

When Charlie Brande stepped down as coach after the 2008 season, Pestolesi immediately began lobbying for Weishoff.

Having lived just around the corner from Weishoff in Pestolesi's hometown of Huntington Beach, Calif., Pestolesi was well aware of Weishoff's résumé. But she was surprised to find out that many of her teammates were not as familiar with the three-time Olympian and 1998 USA Volleyball Hall of Fame inductee.

"When Charlie resigned, my teammates talked about who they wanted as a coach and I said, 'We want Paula Weishoff,'" Pestolesi recalled. "And they were like, 'Why? What did she do?' I just started rattling off everything she had done and they were like, 'Are you kidding me?'"

Weishoff's accomplishments as a player are unparalleled. She led USC to a the AIAW national championship in 1980 and then played for the U.S. Olympic team in 1984, 1992 and 1996, helping Team USA take silver at the '84 Los Angeles Games and bronze in Barcelona in '92. Her international career also included stints in Brazil, Japan and Italy, where she was named Most Valuable Player of the Italian Volleyball League from 1986 to 1989.

Her success as a coach is also impressive. She returned to her alma mater in 1997 and helped coach the Women of Troy to national championships in 2002 and 2003. She left USC in 2004 to become head coach at Concordia University in Irvine, where she turned the Eagles into an NAIA power with four national semifinals and two finals appearances during her five-year tenure.

One of the reasons Weishoff made the move to UC Irvine was her belief in the school's commitment to becoming a top-25 program. It also helped to have the support of the outgoing coach.

"When he decided that he was going to move on, he put in a good word for me," Weishoff said of Brande. "He was a big part of the reason I came here."

I just started rattling off everything she had done and they were like, 'Are you kidding me?'

-- Kari Pestolesi, on telling her teammates about Paula Weishoff

It didn't take long for the Anteaters to prove the decision was correct.

In their first match of the season, UC Irvine stunned No. 6 California 3-2 and sent a message to the volleyball world that it could play with anybody.

"That match set the tone for the year," Pestolesi said. "We are going to be as good as we want to be."

The Anteaters jumped from the list of "Others Receiving Votes" in the AVCA's preseason poll all the way to No. 20. Now they will have to fight to maintain their ranking.

"Once you have that, you have to sustain it," Weishoff said. "And that's not so easy, either."

UC Irvine dropped its first match of the season at USC on Tuesday night, but that won't shake the team's confidence or its belief in Weishoff's system, which is based on what she has learned through years of working with some of the best coaches in the nation.

Weishoff played for Dr. Arie Salinger and Taras "Terry" Liskevych as a member of the U.S. Olympic teams. She coached alongside Lisa Love, Jerritt Elliott and Mick Haley at USC, and has worked with "Jenny" Lang Ping, Jim Stone, Hugh McCutcheon and Karch Kiraly at USA Volleyball.

"Knowing that a coach has played at the highest level, against the best, with the best and is the best, anything she says, you do it because you know she's right," Pestolesi said. "The big thing that Paula always says is you've got to buy in. It comes down to how bad do you want it."

Every season, a few teams crack the top 25 for a few weeks. The Anteaters plan on maintaining their place in the national rankings.

"It just makes us want to be better every time we take the court," Pestolesi said. "Let's keep working at it and stay in there all year long.

"Knowing the program hasn't been a top-tier program for the last 20-plus years, and now we're the group that is making the changes, it's kind of cool. It's something that we've all known that we have the talent to do."

UC Irvine will have several more opportunities to prove it belongs in the top 25, including a match at No. 24 San Diego on Sept. 17 and a pair of encounters with Big West Conference rival Long Beach State.

But the long-term goals are to build a program that rivals any in the nation.

"It's exhausting, but it's a lot of fun at the same time," Weishoff said. "Alumni, boosters, foreign trips, Hall of Fame. Those are all things that haven't been done here yet.

"There are a lot of firsts going on. We had our first elite camp. It's the first time we have been ranked in the top 25 since 1988. We just keep adding things to where this program wants to go."

Once all of those things are in place, UC Irvine will be able to attract players who can fulfill the aspirations of its new coach.

"The goal is to be a little bit taller and a little more physical, but keep the volleyball IQ," Weishoff said. "We think we did that in our first recruiting class. In 2011 and 2012, we need to break in and get some of the top kids who right now are going to Nebraska, Penn State, USC and UCLA."

Regardless of whom Weishoff recruits in the future, they will have a hard time living up to her one-time neighbor, Pestolesi.

"I would go to battle with eight of her," Weishoff said. "She has such a wonderful volleyball IQ; she's so competitive and just a fun player. If I had six Karis, I'd be happy."

And Pestolesi has just as much admiration for her new coach.

"It's the best thing that could have happened for our program," she said. "I'm so grateful that I get two seasons with Paula."

Dave Reed is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.