After helping the USF women’s volleyball team to an emphatic win over Fordham recently, Valentina Zaloznik headed to the War Memorial Gymnasium scorer’s table for an interview.
She had finished her second match in less than 24 hours, and she had another on tap that evening. She was exhausted. Tournament life.
“I just want to sit down,” Zaloznik said, collapsing into a padded seat. She was beaming.
Against the Rams, the 6-foot-4 senior middle blocker from Slovenia finished with a sensational 13 kills on 14 attempts. The .929 attack percentage set a USF single-match record. She added five blocks, four digs and three aces, too.
The #MostVALuable hashtag that surfaced seemed fitting. The Dons lost just one set all weekend. They erased deficits against SMU and Georgia. It was the first time they’d started a season 3-0 since ‘05 and Zaloznik, who had 38 kills on the weekend, was named West Coast Conference Player of the Week. They were 5-1 entering Thursday’s match against UCLA in a tournament host by Hawaii.
Call it habit-forming. For the past two seasons, Zaloznik has been named first-team All-WCC. In 2013, she led the Dons with 28 aces, 107 blocks, 369.5 points and a .341 attack percentage — the last of which ranked third in the conference. Little wonder eighth-year USF coach Gilad Doron considers her one of the best middle blockers in the country.
Just weeks into his first campaign on the Hilltop, Doron fielded a phone call about a Slovenian youth volleyball team. The team was touring San Francisco and wanted to stop by USF.
Once the team arrived, Doron watched them closely. One player made a particular impression.
“I thought Zaloznik was pretty good,” Doron said. “But I had no idea she’d come here.”
Zaloznik didn’t forget her experience in San Francisco. As a high school senior, she sent Doron an email. She wanted to play collegiate volleyball. She was thinking of USF.
Doron raced to Slovenia to visit her family.
“That was the one reason why I chose USF,” Zaloznik said. “Gilad was really persistent. It seemed like he cared. I wanted to come to a team that cares about me.”
Ljubno ob Savinji, Zaloznik’s home in Slovenia, is flanked by forests, farms and fields. It is filled with some 2,000 people. Everyone knows each other. But the switch to USF wasn’t daunting. It fired Zaloznik’s sense of adventure.
“San Francisco is so diverse that you find a way to fit in,” Zaloznik said. “That’s what I love about it.”
As a two-time member of the WCC All-Academic team, she has become a standard bearer for the program. For this season’s young, talented Dons team, she serves as a captain and a leader.
That took on particular importance in the raucous, back-and-forth tourney finale against Georgia, which had imported a sizable fan section.
“She has this way of calming you down,” freshman Oluoma Okaro said. When asked about Zaloznik’s leadership, Okaro and fellow freshman Jessica Gaffney answered as one: “She’s really encouraging.”
The Dons want the third NCAA tournament bid in program history, and it suits them just fine that they were picked to finish sixth in the WCC. A year ago, they were supposed to finish eighth. They came in fourth.
USF plays in one more tournaments after this weekend before conference play begins. Last weekend, the Dons won their first two matches at the Long Beach State Mizuno Invitational, against Campbell and Army, before suffering their first loss of the season against the host 49ers. Zaloznik was named all-tournament after tallying 30 kills, 12 blocks and six aces.