Rasa Virsilaite (left) and Rachel VanMeter will be honored at Senior Night Friday at Huff Hall.
by Mike Koon, Illinois Sports Information
There are few players in collegiate volleyball more impressive on and off the court than Illinois' Rasa Virsilaite. The senior from Lithuania excels in the classroom, has an engaging personality that has attracted some of the top companies, and has had some incredible performances on the volleyball court, all this while learning a new language and culture and going through some trying health issues.
Now Virsilaite, along with teammate Rachel VanMeter, is preparing for her final home match at Huff Hall on Friday night.
It's been four years since Virsilaite, through former Illinois women's basketball player Iveta Marcauskaite, contacted volleyball coach Don Hardin about playing and going to school at Illinois. Like Virsilaite, Marcauskaite was from Lithuania.
"I wanted to play competitive sports and also get a great education," Virsilaite explained. "In Europe you either play professionally and don't get an education or you go to the university and play at the amateur level. I found out you could play high-level volleyball and get a great education at the same time in the United States."
Getting Hardin to see her play was another matter. Virsilaite and a teammate qualified for an international beach volleyball championship in Canada, and she convinced Hardin to travel north of the border to check out her skills.
"I found myself in a car driving to Canada to watch a Lithuanian play beach volleyball," Hardin recalled. "I was really kicking myself because I thought if anything was a wild goose chase, this was. But I really liked her style of play; she passed well and handled the ball well. She was very competitive and had a great attitude."
Beach volleyball had always been a passion for Virsilaite, because although not a big hitter, the game catered well to her well-rounded style of play.
Not only did Virsilaite have to contend with the competitiveness of big time volleyball, but she also had to adapt to a different language and culture. Recently Hardin forwarded her an e-mail that she sent to him early in the recruiting process just to show her how far she had come in her communications skills.
Virsilaite didn't know English well, and Hardin had suggested Virsilaite redshirt to learn the language and to get used to school. But Rasa used the next few months to immerse herself in learning English in preparation to succeed in school.
"I was more mature than my peers," she said. "Although I was ready to leave home and be independent, it was a huge challenge to be in a different country without the support of family and have the demands of volleyball and school work without knowing the language. During my first class I was trying to write down words that I didn't know -- and there were more of them than the ones that I knew."
Despite that fact, Virsilaite earned a perfect 4.0 GPA during her first semester and has been a three-time Academic All-Big Ten performer.
"I am very motivated, hard-working and self driven," she said. "Whatever I do, I don't want to be mediocre. That is what I always strive for."
That has come in handy during November, a crucial month for recruiters from Illinois' business school. Fluency in French, Russian and now English in addition to her native Lithuanian tongue has helped give her an even greater edge over her competitors. In addition, over the summer, Virsilaite interned at one of the nation's top accounting firms, Ernst and Young.
It may seem strange to some, but Virsilaite really enjoys school. "Off the court, it wasn't as mentally and emotionally challenging for me as volleyball. It was the fun, relaxing part of my day," she explained. "When I only had to go to class, I could relax, actually learn and not worry abut being stressed and perform to perfection all the time. I have never stressed about school, and it has always been relatively easy to me. Having good time management skills helped me always be on top of my schoolwork and take care of the details."
"Her only challenge was narrowing in on something because she was interested in everything," Hardin said.
Besides volleyball and schoolwork, her teammates have also tried to help Virsilaite learn American customs. "When I came here, I didn't own a pair of flip-flops," she said. "I had tons of dress shoes and nice pants. I had one pair of jeans. I didn't have a pair of shorts to wear. So my teammates had to take me shopping for shorts, flip-flops and t-shirts."
The food portions were also different. "The first time I went to a restaurant and they started bringing rolls and chips, soups, and salads, I was amazed," she said. "When they brought a steak to one of my teammates, I thought my entire family could eat from that one meal. Every thing was just oversized for me."
On the court, Virsilaite cracked the starting line-up last season and was named to the All-Tournament team at all three tournaments in the which the Illini played, earning MVP honors at the C&C Services Invitational hosted by the University of Arkansas.
This season she has had to dodge an array of injuries. During the summer she had surgery to repair a heart murmur, forcing her to limit on-court training during the pre-season. Three weeks into the season, Virsilaite broke her finger, forcing her to miss three matches. Now she has a torn meniscus, meaning more surgery after the season. She also tore ligaments in her wrist during her freshman campaign.
"Before coming here, I had never been in the hospital," she said. "I rarely took pills or any kind of drugs. I've never really been sick. I really have a good diet and good nutrition, and maintain a healthy lifestyle. Now I have probably spent more time in the hospital than my teammates combined.
"It has been emotionally challenging, but we have such a special group of people to give you support. I love the girls like sisters and my coaches are like second parents."
Virsilaite says that the jobs she's interviewed for are with international companies, so she hopes to be able to take advantage of traveling in Europe to see her family in Lithuania.
For Hardin, that trip to Canada has paid off. "Rasa has been great for our program. She's fun, a caring person who'd do anything for you. She lights up the room and is always entertaining. She's a very engaging person, interested in anything and everything."
Looking back at her four years, Virsilaite will most remember the win over Louisville in 2003 for the right to go to the Sweet 16, the victory at Minnesota in 2002, and the upset last season over No. 1 USC. "In the end, though, you won't remember wins and losses you'll remember a special environment with the special people you're surrounded with. We've developed an environment such that there is no separation between senior and freshman; we're all on the same level."
Now as Virsilaite sets her sights on a position in a highly competitive international business environment, she's thankful that she pursued a spot as a student-athlete at Illinois.
"When I look back, I'm going to say with pride that I was a part of Illinois volleyball."