Nittany Lion volleyball team could always rely on its seniors

gbrunski@centredaily.comNovember 23, 2012 

Sometimes the idea of what your college athletic career will be like doesn’t match the reality.

What you do with the reality shows so much about what is inside a person.

You could be the Player of the Year in your home state, be a high school All-American and have a vast collection of awards, but sometimes you find out what got you those honors won’t get what the team needs.

The two Penn State seniors who will be honored tonight at the Nittany Lion volleyball team’s regular season finale at Rec Hall, when No. 1 Penn State meets Michigan State at 8 p.m., have both demonstrated how handle life’s change-ups.

Setters Kristin Carpenter and Marika Racibarskas embody what it takes for a team to win, not just when the star All-Americans are pounding down the kills and getting the cheers but far beyond on the court during matches.

“I’ve had a lot of players over the years that I didn’t use a lot but I counted on a lot,” head coach Russ Rose said. “You count on them to fill in a gap when someone else doesn’t play well. They can go in.”

Carpenter was an outside hitter and Virginia’s Player of the Year before her arrival on campus, but at 5-foot-6 figured to be a defensive specialist. But she also had setting skills and a strong personality, and turned out to be a pretty good setter too. By the end of her sophomore season she was named to the NCAA’s All-Tournament team as a setter in leading the Nittany Lions to their fourth straight national championship.

But the next season a freshman named Micha Hancock blazed into town and won the starting position away from Carpenter. The veteran admits she wishes she could have kept the job, but she continued to fight.

Racibarskas, like Carpenter, was a Volleyball Magazine Fab 50 player and high school All-American. But through all four season, there has always been someone just ahead of her at setter, but as a good blocker, passer and server she still found court time over the years and provided a lot of glue to keep the team together.

“If you come to a program like this and you don’t try to have fun, you’re going to be miserable,” Racibarskas said. “Coach pushes you to your limit, practices are long, the season’s long, the spring’s long, the summer’s long. If you don’t love it you’re going to be miserable.”

They each found their roles, as back-up setters, back-row players, occasional servers and whatever else doesn’t have a defined job description, both were willing to do it.

“This university — I belong on this team,” Carpenter said. “Whether they need me just for practice, if it’s to serve two points in a game, I’ve never been a really selfish player. Yes I’ve complained, but it’s a bigger picture. It’s a whole lot bigger than me. … Yes, I could sit around and complain, because I had an awesome sophomore year and it was magical and they needed me. It’s really nice to be needed. But better people come around and you can’t waste your days feeling sorry for yourself.”

Carpenter, with her distinctive raspy voice, has stood out since her freshman year with her strong personality, with an unheard-but-always-present, “Follow me. We can do this.”

Racibarskas got less of the spotlight, but with being a helpful, good person just part of her nature, she was there with an ear and advice for her teammates.

“No one cares more than this kid,” Rose said. “Carp’s more outgoing, but Marika’s like a mother to a lot of these kids. It’s a tough gig to be mothering everybody else because it’s ‘What about me?’”

“She is the most selfless person,” Carpenter said. “She wouldn’t give anything less than her whole heart with everything that she does.”

Both have fought off the curve balls their college athletic life has pitched them, and both feel they are better people for it. Other people may choose to try their fortunes someplace else, it just wasn’t what was best for them.

“It’s taught me a lot about what I want as a person,” Racibarskas said. “I love the lessons that Coach teaches us — maybe not at the time, but definitely looking back. People would ask me, ‘Oh, are you transferring? You’re not starting.’ That’s not in my DNA. That’s not in my makeup. Once I start something I’m not going to give up on it.”

Carpenter just hopes there’s one more twist in her personal story before her career ends. During her freshman year she actually played front row as an outside hitter in place of outside hitter Megan Hodge for a few points. She also has been a starting libero. That means she’s got one more goal to accomplish.

“I’m thinking my first time at middle (blocker) will come the first round of NCAAs,” she joked. “But it needs to be a surprise.”

The Nittany Lion pair have shown they know how handle anything that comes their way.

“It has made me a better person,” Carpenter said. “It’s made me tougher, mentally. It’s been a crazy, wild ride these last four years.”

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