By Harry Minium

Old Dominion University women's volleyball coach Fred Chao was in his office early Monday, processing the great memories and the good vibrations he and his players felt after the first three volleyball matches in the program's history.

Over the weekend, ODU won two of three matches against established Division I teams, an amazing feat for a startup program. As he reflected, he said he was overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude for the steadfast support ODU has provided.

So, he composed an email to President John R. Broderick and his wife, First Lady Kate Broderick, thanking them.

He said so many others deserve thanks as well, especially Athletic Director Wood Selig, Associate Athletic Director Carolyn Crutchfield and Greg DuBois, ODU's vice president for administration and finance.

"I'm grateful to so many people who were so heavily invested in helping us put together this program," he said. "I'm glad that for at least the weekend, we all felt it was worth it."

Chao was the top assistant at Duke when approached by ODU more than two years ago to help begin a program from scratch. He said the enthusiasm for volleyball he saw from Selig, Crutchfield and others attracted him.

But what sealed the deal was a personal interview with President Broderick. Not a lot of college presidents get involved in recruiting coaches for Olympic sports.

"The time I spent with President Broderick told me there was a lot of institutional support for volleyball and athletics in general," Chao said. "Everyone here has been focused on trying to help us be as successful as possible."

In his email to the Brodericks, he said ODU's supportive leadership motivated him to become a better coach and person.

"I feel like because of all of the support, because of all of the investment everyone else has made, I have to do better, not only better than I am doing today, but also better than what I am going to do tomorrow," he said.

Other than the fact that crowds were limited to fewer than 200 because of the pandemic, it's difficult to imagine a better debut. ODU swept George Mason 3-0 Friday afternoon in its first match and dominated the first set 25-10.

On Saturday, Virginia Commonwealth dealt ODU its first loss. VCU, picked to finish second in the Atlantic 10 after going to the NCAA tournament last season, beat ODU 3-0.

On Sunday, ODU edged Delaware State 3-2. Playing their third match within 50 hours, not only were the Monarchs physically worn out, they also were emotionally drained.

They won the first two sets, dropped the next two, then gutted out the last set, winning 15-13.

Friday's debut against George Mason, Selig said, "was absolutely stunning."

"For so many of us who worked hard to establish ODU women's volleyball, this will be one of the few days we will remember the rest of our lives," Selig said. "You just think, wow, it really was all worth it. It couldn't have launched any better."

Women's volleyball has long been envisioned at ODU, but much had to be done before the Monarchs could begin playing.

Selig and President Broderick wanted the Monarchs to play in an appropriate facility and, like all ODU teams, be given the chance compete on a national basis.

The road to last weekend's openers was akin to a long chess match that required years of skillful moves.

First, ODU needed to raise $8.5 million to build the Mitchum Basketball Performance Center. It was paid for with private dollars raised over a number of years. The men's and women's basketball teams now have their offices, training facilities and practice facility there.

Once the Mitchum facility opened, it freed the gymnasium at the Jim Jarrett Athletic Administration Building, where the basketball teams formerly practiced, to be turned into a multipurpose facility that would serve as ODU's volleyball home.

ODU spent $3.1 million designing and refurbishing it into the ODU Volleyball Center, with nearly 900 seats and amenities that will allow Chao to recruit at a high level.

"It is such a great facility," Chao said.

Without President Broderick and DuBois, none of this would have happened, Selig said.

"They've been 100% all in," Selig said. "We all want to be competitive, not just in Conference USA, but nationally."

President Broderick, who is retiring this summer after 13 years as president, attended the first match with the First Lady. They cheered every ODU dig, kill and assist.

"I have always looked forward to the day volleyball would start and now we have reached another milestone in intercollegiate athletics," he said prior to Friday's game.

"We can truly celebrate having a state-of-the-art facility with an outstanding coach and young women committed to following the ODU model of being engaged with their community while achieving at a high level in the classroom."

The volleyball players are clearly high achievers academically. They had a combined 3.72 grade-point average during the fall semester, the best among ODU's athletic teams.

And as if he knew what was coming Friday, Broderick added: "They are going to surprise a lot of opponents on the court, too."

It's a little early to pick out individual stars, but seven stood out this weekend.

Ashley Peroe, one of four players from Hampton Roads, tallied the University's first point. The freshman from Virginia Beach's Kellam High leapt at the net and pounded a shot that bounced off a George Mason player and onto the court.

In volleyball vernacular, that shot was a "kill."

Jordan Daniel, another freshman from Virginia Beach, led ODU with 39 digs. A dig is when a player controls an opponent's hard-driven attack and keeps it from hitting the floor by any means, including diving and sprawling. She surely had some floor burns after this weekend.

The most impressive player was Alessia Sgherza, a 6-foot-2 graduate student from Italy who was a force along the net. She led ODU with 40 kills and 46 points. She averages 4.18 points per set.

Teresa Atilano, a freshman from San Diego, had 88 assists, and mastered the art of setting up Sgherza, who often wanders from side to side along the net.

"Teresa was able to find her," Chao said. "And that's when you know your team is starting to figure out how to play."

Chao also cited the play of Madelyn Grunza, a freshman from Southlake, Texas, who had 25 kills. Hailey Duncan, a redshirt sophomore from Chesapeake, also had 25.

Olivia De Jesus, a redshirt freshman from West Hempstead, N.Y., "came up big for us in the fifth set vs. Delaware State," Chao said.

While ODU had a great weekend, the schedule is challenging, and the team is very young. Of the 14 players, 10 are freshmen or redshirt freshmen. While the future looks promising, this season should be one with growing pains.

The Monarchs have 14 remaining matches, including 12 against Conference USA opponents, which is one of the best volleyball conferences in the country.

The marquee games come Feb. 14 and 15, when ODU hosts Western Kentucky, a perennial Conference USA powerhouse that was ranked 25th in the NCAA preseason coaches' poll.

"It will be eye-opening for the fans who are just getting into volleyball to see what a team like that is going to bring," Chao said.

ODU plays at Liberty on Friday, then hosts Norfolk State on Sunday in what will surely be an emotional game between Norfolk's Division I schools.

Even though attendance was limited over the weekend, the crowd noise wasn't. The fans were loud Friday and Saturday, when most seats were taken by invited guests, including donors who made gifts to ODU volleyball.

On Sunday, the first game in which fans were allowed to attend, Chao said he was stunned to see dozens of people lined up at the gate an hour and 15 minutes before game time. A few dozen students were among them, and the crowd was the loudest of the weekend.

Selig predicts ODU will be regularly packing nearly 900 people into the stands once the COVID pandemic subsides.

"It will be a house of noise," Selig said. "The roof is a metal roof. The noise will rain back on everyone back on the court."

More than 1,300 people watched a live stream of the first match on the website. That's an amazing number for a 2 p.m. game on a weekday.

"That tells me how much interest there is in volleyball, particularly in ODU volleyball," Selig said. "It's going to be a very popular team throughout the region. Our volleyball program has a very bright future."

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