Her Hawaiian vacation turned into a nightmare. Now, Elia Rubin wants that state title

Elia Rubin poses for a photo at Marymount High.
Marymount High outside hitter Elia Rubin is considered one of the top outside hitters in the nation and is headed to Stanford next year.
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)
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Every morning in April of last year, the warm island sun would glint off Elia Rubin’s hair as she went for jogs along the sand.

At the inception of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rubin was cut off from the world, living with a few family members in a house along Kauai’s Hanalei Bay. A planned four-day vacation turned into a 50-day stay as the island restricted travel. She took classes over Zoom with palm trees swaying outside, went on hikes, spent as much time at the beach as possible. To many, it would’ve been a dream.

To Rubin, a senior on Marymount High’s girls’ volleyball team, which is ranked No. 2 in California, it was a nightmare.

“People at home were so jealous — they were like, ‘You’re stuck in Hawaii?’” Rubin said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, but I want to be at home playing volleyball. You don’t understand.’”

She never stopped working when it would’ve been easy to do just that. She dragged her younger cousins to the beach with a couple of volleyballs, asking them to serve to her. She’d play “pepper” against the wall of the house. When she finally returned home to Santa Monica, her brothers watched in awe as she trained two to three times a day.

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The Stanford-bound Rubin has a competitive fire that’s been lit since her earliest years. Opponents get burned and teammates singed if they don’t share it. It might have never burned brighter than during her time away — and now with her return to the gym, she’s looking to lead Marymount to a state championship.

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Luca Rubin remembers his younger sister showing that competitive fire in a tournament when she was 10.

At game point, one of Rubin’s teammates missed a serve, badly, to lose the match. Parents in the stands were laughing. Coaches were laughing. The girl was laughing. Everyone was laughing.

Everyone except for Rubin. She didn’t think it was funny. In fact, she was so mad at her teammate’s seemingly carefree attitude, Luca remembers, that she got in her face.

“She’s not there to lose,” Luca said.

Elia, Luca and oldest brother Leo all shared a room growing up in their house in Santa Monica. In the back was a small yard, about 12 by 12 feet — nothing more than a patch of grass. But it felt a lot bigger, Leo said.

Her brothers grew up best friends, playing games of football, baseball or basketball in that yard. Their sister was a couple years younger and didn’t share the bond of playing on the same teams. She wanted to join the boys’ club, trying to get in on the backyard games since 4 years old.

They never took it easy on her, Leo said. She had to be able to hang with them when she played. If she dropped a pass, he’d yell at her.

“Having two older brothers, they’re going to gang up on their little sister,” Rubin said. “But it was also like an internal fight for me to just be better than them.”

Elia Rubin makes a pass during volleyball practice.
Marymount star Elia Rubin makes a pass during volleyball practice.
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)
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Elia started playing volleyball at 8, after her dad dropped her off at a Sunshine Volleyball Club practice. Almost immediately, she was playing with an older age group, which continued for most of her club career. But she welcomed the challenge.

“If I didn’t feel like I was at the top, I could look up to someone on the other side of the court,” Rubin said.

Eventually, she and her brothers put up a volleyball net in the backyard. Suddenly, it became a whole different game.

“She was crushing us,” Leo said. “You could tell that’s all she really wanted, was to just get that recognition from us. So I definitely think that’s fed into her competitive attitude.”

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Rubin, now a 6-foot-1 outside hitter, has been mercilessly targeted by teams’ servers since her first high school competition. She’s never been intimidated on Marymount‘s varsity, coach Cari Klein recalls, tallying 319 kills her first year and 420 as a sophomore.

The fearlessness was a good thing because in one game as a freshman, Rubin was served to 75 times.

That trend persisted into her past club season, which ended with her winning an Open Division national championship with Sunshine’s under-17 team. It was every team’s strategy to pepper her with serves, Klein said. Not because she’s a bad passer — Klein labels her passing and intelligence as her best attributes. Teams were just trying to tire her out.

Elia Rubin, right, chats with Marymount coach Cari Klein during a recent practice.
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

It didn’t work.

“That’s the type of fuel that drives me,” Rubin said. “That’s my favorite, because I’m like, ‘All right, you’re going to try to stop me? Well, you’re going to have to really try now.’”

A coach in her youth, Rubin said, taught her to show confidence when looking at the server. Sometimes when she’s gearing up before a volley, Rubin will bend in a ready position with both arms out and beckon to an opponent with her fingers: “Serve me.”

There’s pressure in being targeted that often, and Rubin, not wanting to let her team down, feels it. When she was younger, Rubin cried after every loss because she felt she could’ve done more.

It frustrates her when she sees teammates not showing the same level of commitment. Before every season, Rubin and her longtime club teammates have conversations with newcomers. “Don’t take anything personal that Elia says on the court,” they’ll say. “It’s just her competitive spirit.”

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When she was younger and didn’t know how to control her emotions, Rubin said, she’d get on teammates to the point of making them cry. She’s grown as a leader, understanding that different people respond to different forms of encouragement. Yet she’s still extremely vocal in pushing her teammates.

Off the court, she’s completely different. Friendly as can be, Klein observed. But when she steps onto the court, something changes.

“She sees a scoreboard, and she likes to go,” Klein said.

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If you told Rubin now that her team would be doing a Zoom practice, she’d probably start throwing up, Klein said.

The time stuck in paradise and away from the gym just added fuel to the fire. After returning from Kauai, Rubin was once again living with her brothers, who are in college. Now, it was their turn to be wowed by her athletic exploits. She’d wake up Luca to train with her in their yard.

“The level of commitment that she puts in every single day, it’s really something that blew me away,” Leo said.

Sunshine’s U18 team had a shortened club season because of the pandemic. Rubin didn’t want that, so instead of playing with an older group like normal, she remained in her own age group to form what she called a “superteam” with others making the same decision. Four of her Marymount teammates were on the roster.

They delivered, with Rubin leading the way as the Open Division most valuable player and Marymount teammates Kerry Keefe and Kelly Belardi selected all-tournament. Rubin was “single-mindedly focused,” Klein said, and the group was hungry after months without volleyball.

“It was so incredible to have this, especially after our year,” Rubin said of the tournament. “Because we were like, ‘You never know when we’re going to get shut down again. Whatever happens, we might as well give it these four days.’”

The goal now is to carry that spirit into Rubin’s senior season with members of a Marymount team that’s fresh off a club championship.

Everything can be ripped away in a matter of seconds, as she knows. Seasons can end, and vacations can become staycations. After a lost junior year, Rubin’s champing at the bit to lead Marymount to the top of the state.

As if she needed anything more to fuel her competitive fire.

Five members of Marymount girls' volleyball team, including MVP Elia Rubin (left), led the U17 LA team to national title.
Five members of Marymount girls’ volleyball team, including MVP Elia Rubin (left), led the U17 LA team to the national title.
(Courtesy Sunshine Volleyball Club)