‘One of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make’

GREENFIELD — The pressure is off, so to speak.

A perfectionist on and off the volleyball court, Greenfield-Central’s Rachel Irbe is accustomed to dealing with self-induced stress.

But during the past few years, the incoming senior has put her meticulous nature to the test.

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Fielding an offer from Northern Kentucky at first, followed by IPFW, West Florida, the University of Indianapolis and Eastern Michigan, Irbe admits, she sifted through every pamphlet more than once.

And when the 5-foot-10 outside hitter was done, she went back and triple-checked her work.

With interests from more than 20 NCAA Division I colleges and a plethora of Division III and NAIA programs, broad strokes weren’t going to cut it.

“It was a really hard decision to make. It was probably one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make so far in my life,” Irbe remarked on her recruiting process, which accelerated after her sophomore season.

“That’s your future. In high school, you can’t really choose where you’re going to go, who’s on your team or who your coach is. In college you can choose all that stuff.”

As a sophomore, Irbe had to do the leg work herself, due to NCAA rules. With coaches unable to contact her, she called them and made a few unofficial visits as more letters continued to arrive.

This past spring, she finally pared down her choices to two, and before her junior year ended so did her conundrum.

She wanted to become an Eastern Michigan University Eagle, verbally committing to former New Castle standout Kimi Olson’s program in late spring.

“She is such a mature kid that she really thought through a lot of things that a lot of kids her age don’t really think through, and with that it did overwhelm her a little bit,” Team Indiana Elite head coach and recruiting coordinator Michelle Coleman said.

“It was constantly on her mind. … I don’t think it’s a negative for her by any means. She just wanted to be so thorough. She made the academics a priority.”

The school in Ypsilanti, Michigan, delivered on three of her predetermined wants.

First, attending EMU meant going out of state. Secondly, EMU had the major she intends to pursue — exercise science. For an added bonus, the program and the Mid-American Conference had “challenging, competitive volleyball,” Irbe said.

The latter is right up her alley.

“The load might be off her shoulders a little bit, but she’s a perfectionist and wants to keep going,” said Coleman, who has coached Irbe the past four summers in club ball. “Now, it’s time to prepare. … I know Rachel, she’s not going to be satisfied until the work is done and she is off doing big things at the next level.”

A three-time All-Hancock County selection, Irbe already has proved to be an elite competitor. Opening her freshman year on varsity for the Cougars, she broke through with 306 kills, 54 aces and 212 digs as a sophomore.

Last year, she toppled those numbers with 313 kills, 56 blocks and 306 digs. Her biggest achievement, however, resides beyond the stat book.

Under 6-foot, Irbe has put substantial effort in becoming versatile. Though listed as an outside hitter, she thrives as a six-rotation player and has elevated her vertical to the point of reaching 9-4.

Destined to face much taller players in the MAC, Irbe expects to see her shots get blocked occasionally, but she takes pride in the influence and the trail her mother, Christine (Essington), blazed during her playing days.

“Attacking is really fun because I’m putting the ball away and getting us that point, but defense is what I really love. You’re usually all over the place, and you have a connection with the entire team,” Irbe said. “It all kind of flows. It all starts with the pass off the dig.”

A natural athlete, Irbe’s father, Doug, an Avon graduate, was a rugby player at Ball State University. Her mother, a 1983 Greenfield-Central graduate, competed in three sports in high school: volleyball, basketball and track.

Christine was three-time state finalist in track and owned Greenfield-Central’s high jump record at 5-7 before Reagan Lewis recently broke it during her four-year career. She placed fifth in the high jump at state in 1983 and took third at the prestigious Midwest Meet of Champions.

In basketball, Christine led the Cougars to two sectional titles and a regional while setting a school record for rebounds in a single game.

At Butler during the 1980s, she was a four-year letter-winner in volleyball, team captain (1987) and the team’s Most Valuable Player (1987). She became the all-time leader in solo blocks with 202 and set the single-season mark with 88. She is among the program’s career-best with 517 blocks.

“She was very athletic. She’s in the hall of fame at Greenfield and Butler. She’s pretty famous,” Irbe said. “My family has been extremely supportive of me.”

By playing in the MAC, Irbe knows she’ll find that support in the stands, once again, beginning in the fall of 2016.

“The MAC is in Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, so it’s all within driving distance, so they can go see me,” Irbe said.

“Some of the other schools I was considering … they all played pretty far away.”

Next on Irbe’s immediate agenda is an official visit to EMU followed by signing her letter of intent once the initial period begins Nov. 11.

In the meantime, it’s back to the grind and one last high school season — minus the outside pressure — where she hopes to improve on the team’s 19-12 record from 2014-15.

“(Greenfield-Central coach) Deena (Batton) really wants to build the program up, and I really want to help her do that,” Irbe said. “I want to make the program better. As a team, I want everyone to get better and work together. Maybe we can get a winning streak going and have teams earn every point against us.”

Fun Facts

Rachel Irbe

Age: 17

School: Greenfield-Central

College commitment: Eastern Michigan (verbal)

Sport: Volleyball

Position: Outside Hitter

Parents: Doug and Christine (Essington) Irbe

Siblings: Ethan, 24 and Mason, 20

Favorite movie: “The Shawshank Redemption” … “I could watch that movie over and over.”

Hobbies: “I love to read a lot.”

Favorite books: Science-fiction, mystery, fantasy

Favorite book: The 5th Wave series by Rick Yancey

Favorite band: Imagine Dragons

If you didn’t play volleyball you would … : “play softball. I liked first base when I played it when I was little and would play someplace in the outfield.”

You philosophy in life is … : “to take the opportunities that are in front of you and make the most of them.”

Author photo
Rich Torres is sports editor at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. He can be reached at rtorres@greenfieldreporter.com or 317-477-3227.