Relatively short for an outsider hitter, Rachel Giustino excelled at collegiate volleyball through a combination of power, finesse and athleticism.
In volleyball, being taller does give a player an advantage — something Rachel Giustino readily admits.
Height is almost a prerequisite if a female high school player hopes to catch the eye of a major university.
“Normally, big schools won’t recruit anyone under 6 foot,” says Giustino, who’s listed at 5-10.
But that didn’t deter David Schwepker, head volleyball coach at Murray State University in Kentucky. From the get-go, Schwepker set his sights on Giustino, who helped lead Marian Central Catholic to the Illinois Class 3A girls state high school volleyball championship during her senior year (2015).
“He came (to visit) on the very first day coaches were allowed to recruit,” Giustino recalls. “He’s just a phenomenal man and cares about his players. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect coach for me.”
Fast-forward four years, and Giustino’s height certainly hasn’t stopped her from playing one of volleyball’s pivotal positions, outside hitter. In fact, she excelled at the NCAA Division I level during her career at Murray State, a career that concluded last November.
Her senior season saw her pile up 610 total kills — third best in the nation. In 2019, all but two of the top 10 Division I outside hitters in total kills were 6 feet or taller.
Giustino leaves Murray State as its all-time leader in career kills (1,764) and points (1,964). She was the Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year in 2019 and also was named an honorable mention All-American by the American Volleyball Coaches Association.
But that’s just scratching the surface of the accolades and numbers she accumulated over four years with the Racers. A three-time all-OVC first team selection, Giustino has the seventh most kills in OVC history. During her senior year, she was named the OVC Offensive Player of the Week six times and took part in the prestigious UIC Invitational. She also showed her defensive prowess, leading the team with 43 blocks and finishing second on the club in digs (346). Nationally, she was third in Division I in kills per set (5.35) and points per set (5.84), and fourth in total points (666).
Giustino says a big reason for her success — both individually and as a member of a team that finished 19-11 — was everyone’s ability to step up their game after the Racers lost Dacia Brown to graduation. Brown also was an outside hitter, combining with Giustino to give the Racers a formidable one-two punch at that position.
“More responsibility was put on me and my teammates,” Giustino says.
Since she is a shorter outside hitter, Giustino utilizes power and finesse — plus a good vertical jump — to spike the ball past taller opponents who are bent on blocking her attempts.
“It’s a combination of both,” she says, “but going around the block is more important for someone my size.”
Giustino finds it hard to believe her collegiate career is over.
“It’s crazy,” she says. “I miss it every day. I see teammates posting pictures in practice (in preparation for the spring season), and I wish I could be there.”
But Giustino isn’t ready to give up volleyball — not by a longshot. She’ll graduate from Murray State in May on a pre-dentistry track with a degree in biology and a minor in chemistry. That will have to wait, though, as she lines up an agent in the hopes of playing professional volleyball in Europe — perhaps as early as this fall.
Giustino is proud of her athletic and ethnic heritage. Her father, Gerard, once played Rookie League baseball for the Salt Lake City Trappers following a college career at the University of Texas-Arlington. The Guistinos still have distant family in Lucca, and Italy is one of the countries she’s considering playing in professionally.
“Eventually I want to go to dental school,” she says, “but I’m not going to close the door on volleyball just yet.”
The above appears in the April 2020 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.