Sielski: St. Joe's player finds a home with die-hard Villanova fans

Pierfrancesco Oliva is a 6-foot-8 freshman forward for the St. Joseph's Hawks who grew up in Italy and moved to Hackensack, N.J., to play basketball in the United States. As a senior at Bergen Catholic High School, he scored 15.9 points a game, playing center on defense and point guard on offense and helping the team win its first county championship in 12 years. He is part of the Hawks' regular lineup rotation this season, though no one would classify him as a major contributor to their 17-3 record, since he's averaging fewer than five points and five rebounds a game, adjusting to a higher level of the sport. Still, coach Phil Martelli thinks enough of Oliva to have said this on Thursday: "His basketball is going to be spectacular. Down the road, I think you're talking about a kid who's an all-league candidate."

But this is a story about the Big Five. So none of those facts is the most interesting part of Oliva's story - not here, anyway. This fact might be: The family with whom Oliva lived during his two years at Bergen Catholic were the Guerras.

That's Mike Guerra: Villanova University Class of 1982 and men's basketball season-ticket holder for more than 20 years. That's Beth Guerra: Villanova Class of 1983. And that's the second-oldest of their three children, Michael: Villanova Class of 2017.

You see the irony here, right? St. Joe's-Villanova is the most fevered rivalry in the Big Five, and Mike Guerra is one of the most loyal Villanova basketball fans in the country. The Guerras have traveled to Nashville, St. Martin, and Maui, among other locales, to see the Wildcats, and they routinely make the 108-mile drive from northern New Jersey to the Pavilion for home games. "I'm just addicted," said Mike, 55, a Bergen County court officer.

So how did Oliva - a player whom Martelli is counting on to keep the Hawks at or near the top of the Atlantic Ten in 2017, 2018, and 2019 - end up living with a Villanova hoops junkie? The story is a case study in serendipity.

After Oliva had honed his game on playgrounds near his family's home in Taranto and starred for the under-16 Italian national team, several Division I schools began scouting him, including Davidson College, the alma mater of Bergen Catholic's head boys basketball coach, Billy Armstrong. Through his Davidson connections, Armstrong looked into getting Oliva enrolled at Bergen, but if Oliva were to decide to come over from Italy, he would need to live with a host family.

Armstrong remembered a conversation he'd had with Mike Guerra, a 1978 Bergen Catholic alumnus. Michael Guerra had played for Armstrong, and even after his son moved on to Villanova, Mike stayed tethered to the program, even working the concession stand during games. He had said once to Armstrong, in passing, that he and Beth wouldn't mind hosting an international player, if Bergen ever ended up with one.

"Lo and behold," Armstrong said, "this kid comes along, and I said, 'Remember when you said you wanted to host a kid. Well . . .' "

To ease Oliva's transition and to help him and the Guerras get to know each other a little, Oliva; his parents, Giovanni and Lucia; and a translator began Skyping with the Guerras. (Oliva speaks fluent English; his parents don't.) "It was weird, obviously," Oliva said. "I didn't know what kind of people they were. I was a little scared."

In January 2014, Oliva flew to JFK Airport in New York, where friends of his family met him and drove him to the Guerras' home. At the time, Oliva was 6-8 but just 185 pounds. "He knocks on the door, and it's the first time I saw him in the flesh," Mike Guerra said. "I said, 'We've got to put some weight on this kid.' "

Five-egg omelettes became a breakfast staple for Oliva, and as his game grew at Bergen Catholic, so did he. Mark Bass, one of St. Joe's assistant coaches, scouted him and encouraged Martelli to recruit him. When Martelli visited Oliva at the Guerras' home, he saw what Mike Guerra described as "the Villanova room," with Villanova carpeting, a 1985 Villanova national-championship jersey-signed by every member of the team-on one wall, and a Villanova jersey autographed by coach Jay Wright on another wall.

Martelli laughed. He had been in situations like this often over the years, recruiting a player whose family had strong ties to another Big 5 school. "It's not hate," he said. "But they'll say to you, 'You're different than I envisioned.'"

It took just an hour, during his official visit to St. Joe's campus, for Oliva to know he wanted to go there. So Mike and Beth Guerra take twice as many drives down the Jersey Turnpike as they once did. "He fills us with delight and pride," Beth said. On Wednesday night, they watched Oliva grab two rebounds and collect a steal and an assist in 14 minutes during the Hawks' 78-70 victory over Massachusetts at Hagan Arena, then headed back to Hackensack, arriving at 1:30 Thursday morning. "That's the kind of people they are," Oliva said. There are even more road trips ahead for them. Their daughter Allison just received her college acceptance letter. From St. Joe's.

msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

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