Davide Gardini coming to play volleyball at BYU was a long time in the making.

He just didn’t know it.

Gardini is a 6-foot-9 freshman outside hitter from Ravenna, Italy. The Cougars are ranked No. 3 in the country heading into this weekend’s matches at No. 9 UC Santa Barbara and Gardini, who is averaging 3.57 kills per set while hitting .392, is a big reason for the team’s strong start.

His story begins as the son of Italian volleyball legend Andrea Gardini, who won three FIVB World Championships and was a three-time Olympian.

“I was young, 4 or 5 years old,” Davide Gardini said. “I remember some but I’ve watched a lot of his matches on DVD, too. It’s always funny to see him playing.”

Young Davide’s life intersected with BYU when he was running around watching his father play and then coach in Italy in the form of Giuseppe Vinci.

“Giuseppe served on a coaching staff with Davide’s father in Italy,” BYU coach Shawn Olmstead said. “His relationship goes back even further with the Gardinis, when he was just kind of hanging around volleyball gyms shagging balls and learning the game. He’s known Davide since he was 5 or 6 years old.”

Eventually, Vinci became a statistical analyst for both the BYU men’s and women’s volleyball teams from 2008 to 2015. He founded VolleyMetrics, which provides in-depth opponent and performance analytics to college and professional teams. In 2017, VolleyMetrics was acquired by college recruiting giant Hudl.

“Andrea Gardini came out a few years ago to visit Giuseppe,” Olmstead said. “I was coaching the BYU women’s team. He stayed for a week and came to some practices. Andrea always had a soft spot in his heart for BYU.”

Meanwhile, Davide was spending a lot of time around high-level volleyball watching his father, mother and sister play. Surprisingly, Davide was immersed in soccer until he was 14 years old.

“I was too tall and it wasn’t good for me anymore,” Davide said, “so I switched to volleyball.”

Gardini rose up through the ranks of the Italian junior national program. On a recommendation from Vinci, former BYU assistant coach Luka Slabe flew out Europe for one of the junior championships to see Davide play.

Gardini was also being courted by UCLA, Pepperdine and Loyola-Chicago, but his recruiting visit to Provo in the fall of 2017 cemented the deal.

“They (the coaches) convinced me,” Gardini said. “The volleyball program here is unbelievable. So many fans come to every match at volleyball is something that’s really important at BYU. I could say the same things about other schools, but it was just more here. They were working on a higher level with the coaches and everything about the program. Academically, it’s also very good here.”

Whenever Olmstead is asked about his young star, he brings up Gardini’s tremendous volleyball IQ.

“He’s very comfortable in these situations,” Olmstead said. “We saw that really early, as soon as he was here. It goes into his family history and how much time he’s spent in the gym in his lifetime, just absorbing it all. He has connections to some of the greatest athletes that Italy has ever had, people he’s directly connected to, and has known, and considers a friend.”

BYU has always had success in recruiting foreign players. This season, there are athletes from Italy (Gardini), Finland (Miki Jauhiainen), Puerto Rico (Gabi Garcia Fernandez) and Brazil (Felipe de Brito Ferreira).

“Volleyball is volleyball, but there are a lot of ways to teach it,” Olmstead said. “There’s a learning curve for all of us. They’ve been taught in a different language and they’ve been taught to process the skill in a different way. We try to get on the same page and find some common ground.

“It was fun to sit with Davide last semester, watching film of Italy and how they play then talk to him about how we teach those skills. Credit to Davide. He’s been completely open. He could have come in here and been like ‘This is how I’ve been taught or this is how my dad played.’ Davide has never been anything but receptive.”

Gardini said once he chose BYU, he worked hard to familiarize himself with American culture. On a recent road trip, Olmstead and Gardini sat next to each other on the plane and discussed the finer points of American television. Gardini has become a big fan of “The Walking Dead” and other shows.

He said he wasn’t very familiar with the culture of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but talked with teammates who had been through the experience of living in Provo and is comfortable with his environment.

So far, Gardini said he’s loved his time in college.

“It was hard, honestly, at first,” he said. “I was not used to the downtime for volleyball because in Italy our season starts in September. It was all new for me, but I saw an opportunity to get better. Our first game here was huge with such a great crowd in the Fieldhouse. We started kind of late (Jan. 10) but Ohio State was a really good team and I was impressed with how we played. Now I feel like this is almost my second family here.”

Darnell Dickson, who has been covering sports in Utah since 1989 (with a detour to Nebraska for three years somewhere in there), is currently the BYU football columnist and BYU men’s basketball beat writer.

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