By Gideon Rubin
San Diego Jewish Academy volleyball coach Melissa Maxwell could just tell Sara Chitlik would someday be a special player when she first saw her play in sixth grade.
“I always knew that she was going to be great,” Maxwell said.
She just didn’t know when.
And she never expected it to happen so soon.
Chitlik made the varsity as a freshman last year and worked her way into the starting lineup. By the end of the season, she’d become a key contributor. She was among the team’s leaders, averaging four kills.
Chitlik, a 5-foot-9 outside hitter, is a defensive standout who plays all the way around for SDJA.
She projects to be an impact player for the Lions this year.
Maxwell said she was “absolutely” surprised at the pace of Chitlik’s development.
“She’s an amazing player,” Maxwell said. “She just keeps the team going at all times.”
Chitlik competes year-round, playing high-level club ball for SoCal.
She has developed an advanced skill set for a player her age to go along with leadership and a tremendous drive and passion for the game, Maxwell said.
“She honestly has gotten so much better,” Maxwell said.
Chitlik attributes her development to hard work.
“I think that my hitting has gotten to a higher level than it was last year and my passing has improved too,” she said.
“I think teamwork is a big part of what I feel I contribute.”
And she’s taking nothing for granted, continuing to work to secure a varsity roster spot that’s pretty much a foregone as far as her coaches and teammates are concerned.
But it wasn’t all that easy at first for Chitlik competing on the varsity against players who were bigger, stronger and faster than she’d ever faced.
“It was very intimidating,” she said.
And that was just the volleyball. Chitlik acknowledged it was tough fitting on a team made up of players up to three years older than her, most of whom she didn’t know well.
She credits teammate Savi Lurie, who’ll be a junior this year, for helping mentor her.
“I was pretty much the only freshman and I had to get to know everyone and play against girls at a really high level,” she said.
But Chitlik believes the challenge has made her a better player.
“I tend to play better when I’m with stronger players,” she said. “I developed a stronger ability.”
She also developed an all-out playing style.
Maxwell said she took note of Chitlik’s all-out playing style at the Maccabi Games in Orange County earlier this month on a team she coached.
“She had bruises all over the place and was bleeding and said ‘don’t take me out, put a band-aid on me and put me back in there,’” Maxwell said. “Her toughness and the mental stamina that she had was awesome to see. She wants to win. She’s a very, very hardworking player, and it’s very hard to find that.”
Chitlik said she’s tried to model her game after Team USA standout Destinee Hooker.
“She’s just a great player, she inspires me in every way,” Chitlik said, noting she’s as much a fan of Hooker as a person as she is a volleyball player.
“She puts messages out to people to ‘be yourself, do the right thing help others,’ “ Chitlik said.
Chitlik has followed her idol’s lead, doing community service for the Girls Scouts and the Hands Up Youth Food Pantry, a Jewish charitable group in San Diego.
Maxwell described Chitlik as a quiet leader whose playing style rubs off on teammates. And although it would be unusual to name a sophomore a team captain, she said Chitlik has taken a leadership role.
It’s a role Chitlik acknowledged she takes pride in.
“She’s definitely a silent leader,” Chitlik said. “She’s definitely been able to demonstrate that she has a role on the team and she’s shown that she can definitely motivate herself and teach others.”
Just as impressive, Maxwell said, is that Chitlik has risen above some of the personality conflicts that are part of the competitive San Diego club volleyball scene.
“She laughs and she enjoys the game,” Maxwell said. “She’s a no-drama player; she works hard, leaves everything on the court and she gets the job done.”