USF team serves up a surprise: Jewish heritage night

The final score did not go the Dons’ way, with the University of San Francisco women’s volleyball team losing 3-0 to Saint Mary’s College. But that didn’t stop a crowd of Jewish fans from rooting for the home team at USF’s first Jewish Heritage Appreciation Night.

The Nov. 18 event took place at San Francisco’s War Memorial Gym, home court of the USF Dons.

Outside, the Old World Food Truck served up Jewish treats, from homemade borscht to chicken schnitzel sandwiches. Inside the gym, the music of Matisyahu blared over the speakers while a contingent of Brandeis Hillel Day School students cheered on the Dons from the stands.

USF Dons defensive specialist Rebecca Kopilovitch photo/alexander crook-courtesy of usf athletics

Between sets, Chabad of San Francisco Rabbi Yosef Langer, aka the Rally Rabbi, blew the shofar at center court. Since there is no known volleyball anthem, the rabbi played along with “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

Plenty of Jews were in the stands among the crowd of 300, but they were also on the court and courtside: the USF team includes two Israeli coaches and two Israeli players.

One of those players, Rebecca Kopilovitch, is the team’s libero, a position that requires exceptional defensive skills. She showed them off against Saint Mary’s by making 28 digs, an incredibly high total in a three-set match.

Though the team has had a so-so season, Kopilovitch, a sophomore majoring in business administration, said she loves playing for USF. An Israeli national team member for three seasons, she served two years in the Israeli army after graduating high school and then played one season for the Beersheva club team before making her way to San Francisco in 2010.

Last year, the 5-foot-8 player ranked second in the West Coast Conference with digs-per-set (4.5) and was named to the conference’s all-freshman team.

The other Israeli on the USF roster is also a former Israeli national team member — a team captain, in fact. However, as a freshman this year, 6-foot-2 middle blocker Inbar Vinarsky barely saw any match action.

Kopilovitch and Vinarsky both set their sites on coming to USF because they liked the idea of playing volleyball and going to college in California, and when they saw the Dons were coached by Gilad Doron, it clinched the deal. Doron, a native of Haifa, was a member of four national championship Israeli teams, and formerly head coach at Temple and Villanova Universities.

Israelis (clockwise from top left) Inbar Vinarsky, Rebecca Kopilovitch, assistant coach Eyal Zimet and head coach Gilad Doron

“Besides being a great volleyball coach, he brings to the team something additional,” Kopil-ovitch said. “He very personal with his players. You can really tell he cares, not only about volleyball but how, after we finish school here, we will be better people and more successful.”

Hired in 2007, Doron led the Dons to a slightly above .500 finish this season, although it was below .500 in conference play; the season ended Saturday. A win in September was Doron’s 77th as USF’s head coach, making him the school’s all-time leader for volleyball coaching victories.

Doron brought on a new assistant coach before the start of the 2012 season — Eyal Zimet, who spent nine years on the Israeli national team and then played for the University of Hawaii, helping lead the team to the 2002 NCAA title.

Doron said there is no distinct Israeli style of play, per se, but a touch of Israeli feistiness has crept into his coaching.

“When you are small country playing against all odds, that’s the one thing we try to put in,” Doron said. “This year we beat Cal twice, the first time in school history, and we beat teams we never had beaten before. We try to overcome challenges, and have faith.”

The team’s Israeli coaches and players were tickled that school and athletic officials agreed to host a Jewish heritage night after they thought it up.

”It’s a great way to reach out to the community,” said Doron, whose children attend Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Francisco. “We’re trying to increase our fans, but it will take time. We have to make sure we give them a great product. That’s how the sport will grow.”

Added Kopilovitch: “Being away from home, I realize how I still feel a big connection to the Jewish community, here and in Israel. It gives me a feeling of home and family.”

With so many Israelis on the court, does the coach ever slip from English to a little street Hebrew? Normally no, but with one exception.

“Only when he gets a little mad,” Kopilovitch noted. “He’ll say something I’ll understand better.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at