- Mike Grimala, ESPNHS
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Marika Racibarskas has court vision.
The Chatham senior can see things that few other players recognize, and she can often see them before they happen.
Of all the skills required to play setter, that's perhaps the most important. Being able to recognize and interpret player movement on both sides of the court
is crucial, as sight adjustments can
mean the difference between winning and losing.
In the Group 2 championship match last year, Racibarskas' sixth sense helped deliver the state title. Leading 23-22 in the third and deciding game, Chatham was having trouble putting the ball away.
"It was a long point," recalls Chatham coach Linda Dolansky. "Marika had set up a couple of our hitters, and they tried to put it down but the other team played it back."
After a few unsuccessful offensive bids, Racibarskas noticed something
as she was preparing to pass off for another spike attempt.
"As a setter, you have to quickly peek at the other side before you make a decision, and I saw that there was a
little hole coming open," she says. "They were moving to anticipate another spike, and there was an opening."
Racibarskas saw the defense
committing a split-second too early, and she made a game-changing play by
forgoing the pass and tipping a quick shot over the net herself. The ball fell in to give Chatham a 24-22 lead, and the Cougars won the next point to clinch the state championship.
"We really needed that point," Racibarskas says. "Instead of bump-set-spike over and over, sometimes you have to throw a little curveball. I saw the open spot and went for it and just threw it down as fast as I could."
The ability to see everything on the volleyball court is what allowed Racibarskas, a 5-foot-11 workout warrior, to rack up 457 assists last year in leading Chatham to a 27-2 record and the
program's first state crown.
And though she's always had vision, it wasn't until her freshman year that she really put it to use. Until then, she had played mostly outside hitter for club teams that wanted to take advantage of her athleticism.
But during an early practice before the start of the season, Chatham's coach at the time asked if anyone could fill in at setter to help round out one of the team's thinner positions. Racibarskas' older sister, Katrina, a junior at the time, volunteered Marika to fill in.
"It was a little intimidating at first because it wasn't the position I had been playing, and also because I was paired with a senior setter," Racibarskas says. "As a freshman, I was just trying to know my place and help the team."
Dolansky, who took over as coach
last year, couldn't be happier that
her predecessor made the move. Racibarskas has been a difference-maker at setter from Day 1 and has evolved into one of the nation's best.
"She's a dynamic presence at an important position," Dolansky says. "At setter you need someone who is a leader and someone who can run the show. Teammates have to be able to rely on you. Marika has all that."
In addition to seeing the court, her quickness and athletic ability allow her to get to just about every ball. And once Racibarskas gets her fingers on it, her soft hands and deft touch allow her to make passes others can only dream about.
"She covers so much ground," says Louis Stevens, who coaches Racibarskas' club team. "She can make plays on balls that you think are out of reach, and she can turn a bad pass into a great set and make something good happen."
Covering too much ground is
something Racibarskas actually counts as a weakness. By her own account, she sometimes suffers from chasing balls outside her zone and trying to make too many plays, which can take her out
Her vision not just confined to the court, Racibarskas recognized the
problem watching from the sidelines while injured last season.
A sprained ankle kept her out of two full late-season matches, including a Morris County Tournament contest.
A different perspective allowed Racibarskas to see ways to improve her game, and when she rejoined the team the change was noticeable.
An eight-match winning streak ensued, culminating in the tip shot and the state championship.
Now Racibarskas is looking forward. After losing four starters to graduation, Chatham lacks experience at several positions, and Racibarskas is taking responsibility for bringing the team together quickly.
With a naturally talkative, engaging personality, she feels it's her job to make sure everyone is comfortable on the court and performing up to their
capabilities as Chatham makes a run at another title.
"I just try to relay the message from the coach to the rest of the team," Racibarskas says. "I try not to press too much, but just show by example how everyone should play. Volleyball is the biggest team sport, in my opinion, and all six girls have to be working together for the team to have success."
Stevens says Racibarskas has coach-on-the-floor leadership skills.
"You always want your best and most talented players to be your hardest workers, and she's not afraid to work hard. Combine that with all her physical gifts and her skill set, she is everything you could want in a high school player."
That total package is what led to Racibarskas becoming one of the most sought-after recruits in the country. She has committed to Penn State, the defending NCAA national champion.
College is just the next step, however. Racibarskas, who describes volleyball as her "entire life," takes a more long-term view when listing her goals and notes that she aspires to coach one day.
Once again, she's seeing things that others can't see.
Hitters may get the glory, but behind every spectacular kill is a killer pass. Chatham setter Marika Racibarskas knows how to deliver the goods.