The Face of the Team
Kari Pestolesi stands on the left side of the court. She watches as the ball travels to the first-year starter, Marissa Alvarez. The sophomore setter receives the ball. She extends her elbows and pushes the ball in the direction of the senior outside hitter.
While Alvarez receives the ball, Kari launches herself into the air. She winds her arm, ready to slap the ball with a ferocity that would leave a red mark on the human flesh. Her hand meets the ball and produces a distinct sound that fills the Bren Events Center.
She violently fires the ball onto the USC side of the court. The ball finds a hole in the Trojan defense. The referee raises her hand, pointing toward the UC Irvine side, awarding the point to the Anteaters. The ’Eaters have increased their lead to 3-0 in the second set.
The three-point lead was followed by an immediate and ecstatic reaction from Kari. Her excitement resulted not only from the fact that the Anteaters were beating the No. 6 team in the nation, threatening to put the first blemish on a 10 win, zero loss team, but also because she was beating the same team that denied her a spot on the Trojan roster and the chance to play outside hitter.
The USC rejection proved to be the ultimate gain for the UC Irvine women’s volleyball program. The Huntington Beach native opted to stay in Orange County and attend the one program that gave her the opportunity to pursue her volleyball goals.
“I did not have many opportunities to play outside hitter. USC said I could walk-on and play libero,” Pestolesi said. “I did not want to play libero. I wanted to hit, I wanted to block, I wanted to do all of that. So it was either UCI or Long Beach State, and UCI was the better fit.”
UC Irvine’s decision to allow Pestolesi to play outside hitter paid immediate dividends. Former women’s volleyball Head Coach Charlie Brande decided to start the outside hitter as a true freshman and from that point on, there was no looking back.
As a freshman, Pestolesi grabbed UC Irvine women’s volleyball and the Big West by the horns. In her first year she led the team in kills with 491, recorded 40 service aces (which also ranked first on the team) and finished second with 349 digs. She became the first Anteater to be named AVCA Freshman of the Year. She was also named Big West Freshman of the Year, awarded to the First Team All-Big West and given AVCA All-West Region Honorable Mention. In the Big West, Pestolesi finished fifth in kills per game with 4.2 and sixth in service aces per set.
In her second year, Pestolesi proved that her freshman statistics were no fluke and she would continue to have a tremendous impact on the success of women’s volleyball. In 2008, Pestolesi would once again lead the team with 373 kills, 35 service aces and her 348 digs were good for second on the team. Once again, she received AVCA All-West Region Honorable Mention and was named to the First Team All-Big West.
Pestolesi’s success as a sophomore translated into wins. The Anteaters started the season with a 7-10 record but then the team caught fire, as they closed out the season winning 10 out of their last 12 games. This momentous finish put the Anteaters on the verge of making the playoffs for the very first time. But after taking two teams from the Big West in 2007, the AVCA decided to give a playoff berth to just one Big West school, leaving the Anteaters out of the postseason hunt.
Despite being named Big West Coach of the year and being on the cusp of making the playoffs, Coach Charlie Brande decided to retire, leaving the coaching position vacant.
UC Irvine would once again be reminded why it was a good decision to allow Pestolesi to play volleyball as an Anteater. She wanted to bring in one of the most successful women in college volleyball to coach the Anteaters.
“I don’t remember thinking that anyone else was ever going to get hired. Paula [Weishoff] was going to be our coach. I had it set in my head,” Pestolesi said.
One of the biggest reasons why Kari wanted to bring Coach Weishoff to UCI was because of the relationship that existed between the two. Weishoff lived down the street from Kari and played with Pestolesi’s mom on a junior national team.
“I told my teammates, ‘guys we want Paula, you will all love her, she is good at what she does,’” Pestolesi said. “The rest of the team responded by saying ‘who is Paula?’”
This led Pestolesi to print out all of the accolades that Weishoff earned during her days as a player and coach, including a silver medal in the 1984 Olympics held in Los Angeles and a gold medal in the 1981 and 1983 NORCECA Championships. While at USC, she was part of three D-I national titles, one as a player and two as an assistant coach. Before coming to Irvine, Weishoff coached the Eagles of Concordia University and left the program as the winningest coach, as she accumulated a 146-33 record.
This is all it took for the rest of the team to get onboard with Kari as they lobbied for Coach Weishoff.
“Everyone wanted her really bad and we just kept our fingers crossed, hoping they would hire her,” Pestolesi said.
And so it was, as UCI’s athletic director, Mike Izzi would go on to hire Weishoff.
It did not take long for Coach Weishoff to change the culture of women’s volleyball here at UCI.
“Once Paula took over we were held more accountable,” Pestolesi said. “We were more of a family, we had to sit down as a team to make our team rules and our team identity.”
This immediate change proved to be successful. In Weishoff’s first year as head coach, the Anteaters posted a record of 22-8 and had the fewest losses since 1978.
The relationship between Pestolesi and Weishoff certainly attributed to last year’s success.
“We understand each other a lot because we have been around each other so much,” Pestolesi said. “It helps in the gym because I can look at her and I know what she is feeling or trying to say.”
Despite the fact that Weishoff brought instant success to the women’s volleyball program, the Anteaters were once again left out of the post-season picture.
This season should be different, as the Anteaters played a very tough non-conference schedule that featured six of the nation’s top 25 teams. This was done in order for the Anteaters to become a top-caliber team that can compete with best.
Although the team has opened up its season with 4-10 and has lost its first two conference games, Pestolesi believes this team has the makings of a playoff contender.
“This year we are going to be a lot more successful because everyone has bought into [Coach Weishoff’s system],” Pestolesi said. “We know we have to play with the best teams and win the conference if we want to be in the playoffs.”
As the team’s only four-year starter, the pressure falls on Pestolesi to lead the Anteaters.