Love, passion and commitment: An athlete’s journey to an honorable game


Zoe DiNardo ready on the court. Photo by Julia Travers, taken Oct. 15.

From her early start in a volleyball grass league at the age of 7, and her mom also having been a volleyball player, Zoe DiNardo switched to the court at the age of 12. After taking a year off due to a knee injury, she tried out softball and equestrian sports. Yet, her love for volleyball brought her back her freshman year of high school when she was 14. 

Her volleyball career took off at William S. Hart High School in Newhall, California. In her four years, she set the school’s single-season record of 308 total kills as a senior.

According to her biography on the Chico States Wildcat Athletic website, DiNardo racked up many honorable mentions in her high school career, leading the Indians to back-to-back Foothill League championships and earning herself the title Second Team All-FL and All-SCV in 2017, and All-FL honorable mention as a sophomore. 

Her high school coach, Mary Irilian, described her as a fun, outgoing and overall a good teammate. DiNardo was one of the best hitters on the team. 

“She was coachable and pushed herself to be the best at each practice and game. Zoe had the potential to break school records, of which she did,” Irilian said. “So the overall goal was to keep her mindset strong and keep working on her fundamentals.”

From there she attended her first year of college at Division II Concordia University in Portland, Oregon; where she played in 2019, however due to COVID-19, the school was shut down permanently on Feb. 10, 2020. DiNardo felt devastated after hearing the news, blurring her future in volleyball, and leaving her wondering when she would get her next chance to be back on the court. 

DiNardo’s hopes and prayers were heard when Chico State offered her a position on the team. 

DiNardo planned on visiting other schools in the California Collegiate Athletic Association, but luckily for Chico State she joined the team with a quick and convincing phone call from Tommy Gott, head coach of the women’s volleyball team. 

DiNardo’s coach at Concordia, Melanie Hambelton, knew Gott from his previous coaching career at Western Oregon University through 2016-2018, and helped DiNardo get in contact with him. 

“We contacted Tommy anyway, and he was interested in an outside hitter and he saw her video and liked what he saw, and Zoe is kinda unforgettable,” Hambelton said. “I think she just loves the game of volleyball and she just loves her teammates and she’s intelligent and knows the shots to make to be successful.”

And with this, DiNardo’s athletic career was back on track.  

“I was hysterically crying, that was the only place I applied to out of high school, I wanted to go to a D3 out of high school, I had no quotas and no connections. This was the week Cody Hein had passed away so I hadn’t heard from him,” DiNardo said. “I was in Humboldt when Tommy called me and I committed to him right then and there.” 

DiNardo said she had heard nothing but good things about Chico State and was ecstatic to come join the Wildcats on the court once again where she belongs and thrives. 

DiNardo ranked fourth on the team in total kills in 2021, with 184 kills including 90 digs and 20 blocks for the season. This year she scored 18 points in one game as her record this season, having 204 total so far. 

She has made a significant impact for Chico State, not only for her team but for her game play as well, physically and emotionally. 

She describes her progression of her volleyball career in the means of maturing, understanding how to control her emotions and becoming a solid, consistent player. 

“I used to be a roller coaster of emotions on the floor. You could read my face from a mile away, I would flail and I would get so dramatic and angry,” DiNardo said. “When I got to the collegiate level, I realized that that’s not okay. Especially if I want to be a leader going into this next year, wanting to be captain and wanting to be an all conference player.” 

DiNardo explained how emotionally challenging playing at a high level of sports can be. It is difficult and emotionally draining on one’s mental health. However, DiNardo has found a community that all know the indistinguishable struggle as a student athlete. 

“But it is exciting, it’s something to wake up to and look forward to,” DiNardo said. “I’m a part of something everyday, I get to work hard and do the thing I love, I have an identity here.” 

DiNardo’s volleyball career will continue this season, and she is also looking forward to playing her fifth year next fall, while being in her junior year athletically. As a player, she has an exciting path ahead of her, growing stronger everyday.

DiNardo alongside Bree Rodriguez for a block. Photo by Julia Travers, taken Oct. 5.

Julia Travers can be reached at [email protected].

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