Sonja Gavioli left a good, up-and-coming volleyball team behind.

In four years time, Gavioli returned the Woodside Wildcats to consistently winning. She posted a 76-54 career record, spending two years in the Peninsula Athletic League Ocean Division before the team was promoted to the “A” league Bay Division in 2017.

Following last year’s trip to the Central Coast Section Division II playoffs, however — a team that would return a majority of its star power in 2019 — Gavioli announced to the team she and her family were returning to her native Italy.

“After our last game, it was very emotional,” said Molly Buddie, a current third-year senior who played for Gavioli for two years at Woodside, as well as playing for her with the Academy Volleyball Club.

“But it was a great opportunity. We knew she had to go back home and see family, and it was better for her and her husband. We were super happy for her, and we know she left a great team and a great community and program here.”

With first-year head coach Vladimir Tchernichov taking over, Woodside (3-4 overall) is finding a rhythm. Since losing their first three matches to start the year, the Wildcats have won three of their last four, including Tuesday’s sweep of rival Sequoia 25-22, 25-9, 25-11 at Woodside.

The Ravens (0-3) proved a good test in the opening set with Sequoia junior Maddie Gleason throwing a roof party. The Ravens’ middle produced a match-high six blocks throughout, including three in Game 1, forcing Woodside to get creative with its shot selection.

Woodside outside hitter Sarah Strus proved the equalizer early on. The 6-1 senior totaled 12 match kills, seven of them coming in the opening set. Her presence off the left side helped the Wildcats overcome an early five-point deficit, then later broke a 17-17 tie with back-to-back kills. Her team never again trailed in the match.

“That was a very good test for them,” Tchernichov said. “And Sarah performed well. It was the first time she was turning with the extreme angles, the line, so I’m happy about that.”

After a closely-contested Game 1, Woodside really found its grove. The Wildcats committed just four unforced errors in Game 2, all four via service faults. And the showing from the service line was dazzling as Strus, Buddie, and seniors Lena McDonough and Elena Campell combined for eight aces in the set. Strus accounted for four of them, and totaled six aces in the match.

When it comes to serving, though, Buddie is the primetime show. For the past two years, Buddie has led the PAL Bay Division in aces. And Tuesday she caught fire in Game 3, recording six of her match-high seven aces in the set, including four in a row at one point.

“This was great,” Buddie said. “… I’ve definitely been working on that jump float. So, it really came in handy, today especially.”

This is the year for the Wildcats to prove their mettle, and everyone knows it. Buddie is among the crop of players who were promoted to the varsity squad as underclassmen by Gavioli.

“Even my freshman year, I knew a lot of the varsity girls … I knew that the program already had some amazing girls and some amazing talent,” Buddie said. “So, I was very excited to go through that process and progress.”

Tchernichov was born in Moscow but moved with his family to Sarzana, Italy when he was 3. His father, with whom Tchernichov shares the same first and last name, competed in two Olympics as a men’s volleyball player for former USSR, earning a silver medal in the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal, and a gold medal in the 1980 Games in Moscow.

Tchernichov was hired in March and held his first practices at Woodside during an open gym in June. His first impression of the 2019 Wildcats was a good one.

“I definitely saw immediately great potential on this team,” Tchernichov said. “Great abilities, great players, great experience, especially on offense. What we are working a lot more is our serve receive. Since we have these powerful hitters, it means we also have to deliver the ball to the setter to do some plays to use all the hitters.”

Having coached his first season at Academy Volleyball Club earlier this year, he is cut from the same proverbial stone as Gavioli. Following in her footsteps at Woodside, though, he does have some big shoes to fill.

“Sonja was great,” said Tim Faulkner, Woodside athletic director. “She took the program to the next level competing in the Bay Division. So, Sonja came in and lifted the program.”

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