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October 30, 2002

Deaf athlete striving

From: Torrington Register Citizen, CT
Oct. 30, 2002

Special to The Register Citizen

SOUTHINGTON -- Marisa Soboleski stood with volleyball in hand at the service line. She peered over to Amy Corey, a young woman on the Southington High junior varsity team's sideline who was relaying commands from head coach Bob Moffo in sign language.

She gently flipped the ball in the air and rifled it for an ace in her team's home match against Terryville Oct. 8, a contest the Blue Knights won 2-1.

Moments later, Soboleski and Nikky Thompson, her setter, made eye contact near the net. Thompson raised her right index finger and tapped the ball with her fingertips to Soboleski, who timed her leap perfectly and unleashed a wicked spike through the heart of the Terryville defense.

Eye contact with Thompson, hand signals with teammates Katie Davis and Amy Cassello and nonstop sign language from Corey; all necessary components of Soboleski's game.

Nonverbal communication has to take precedence over the spoken word for Soboleski, who is profoundly deaf. Even though born with a hearing impairment so severe that she can't hear her coach speak in a team huddle, Soboleski has been playing sports -- organized and informal -- since she was a little girl.

Now Soboleski, 15, a thin, blonde, sophomore, is playing her first season on thejunior varsity team and has quickly proved herself to be as solid a volleyball player as any of her teammates.

"Marisa is a very good player," Moffo said. "She knows the game. She has a very good court sense. Other than a couple of communication problems here and there, she's done a great job for us all the way around."

Said Soboleski said of her deafness, through Corey, her interpreter: "I don't feel it's that much of a disadvantage. I've gotten used to the speed of the game by now, which is what I really love about the sport, and the people. As long as I know the people on the court, I can play with them. I get to know their moves."

Soboleski and her teammates have indeed learned each other's moves since the team began practicing in late August. From Day One, the players devised a system of hand signals and eye contact to communicate with Soboleski on the court.

Making things easier is that some of the players learned the sign alphabet in elementary school, while others have made a conscious effort to learn a little sign language.

"They were so friendly," Soboleski said of her first meeting with her new teammates. "They were very accepting. There were no weird feelings. They talked to me right up front."

In many respects, Soboleski seems like any other 15-year-old girl in high school. She likes to go out with her friends to pizzerias, read books and competes on the indoor and outdoor track teams.

She is an A-B student whose two favorite subjects are biology and history.

"I'm not like some strange freak that walks down the hallways," Soboleski said. "I'm just a normal person. Teachers treat me just like a normal kid, so do the other kids in school. It doesn't make any difference to me that I'm deaf."

From the beginning, Soboleski has had a remarkable support system to help her seamlessly fit in to almost any situation. Both her parents are profoundly deaf as is her brother Stuart, who was a record-setting track standout for Southington High last year and currently is a member of the University of Connecticut track team.

Her grandparents and most of her aunts, uncles and cousins are also hearing-impaired.

"We're just like any other household," Soboleski said of growing up in a hearing-impaired family. "At home, we're always signing. Were just like any other family, we just communicate differently."

Marisa's parents encouraged her and her brother to play sports from a young age. Since she first began playing volleyball in the sixth grade after missing an announcement over the school intercom for soccer tryouts, Soboleski's parents have been sending her to numerous youth volleyball camps, including one this past summer at UConn.

She said her mother Luisa, an assistant principal for two years at the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford, as her role model. Luisa has been teaching hearing-impaired students at the elementary level for 20 years.

"My mom is definitely a leader," Soboleski said. "My mom is involved with everything; conferences, meetings, things of that sort. I would want to be like that."

Like her mother, Soboleski can see herself becoming a teacher for deaf children, as well as a veterinarian -- anything "biology-related" that would allow her to work with her favorite school subject.

Moffo acknowledged the occasional difficulty for Marisa, but insisted she can advance to the varsity level and make a contribution. After admitting it's sometimes a challenge to coach Marisa, Moffo praised her virtues.

"Actually, it's a pleasure coaching her," Moffo said. "It makes you appreciate what you really have. She's a great kid. I couldn't have asked for a nicer person. Very respectful, always smiling and always great with her friends."

At the end of the Terryville-Southington jayvee game, both teams went through the customary post-match handshake. No negative reactions came from the Terryville players concerning Soboleski's condition, only a comment that could neatly describe her jayvee experience thus far: "Oh my god, that girl is deaf. That's so cool (that she is playing)."

©The Register Citizen 2002