Liz Yazbek was born deaf, but she excels in basketball and in life.
BOARDMAN -- Boardman High girls basketball coach Ron Moschella has a reputation for being vocal on the sidelines.
He admits that when he is upset with someone on his team, he has a tendency to raise his voice. But the veteran coach said when he gets really upset he takes a different approach: He pulls them aside, cups his hand around their ear and talks softly to get his point across.
He chuckles as he recalls a time when he did that to Liz Yazbek.
"I was talking to her with my hand like this," said Moschella, cupping his hand by his mouth. "Suddenly, she throws up her arms and yells, 'Coach, I'm deaf!'"
Yazbek, 18, was born profoundly deaf, yet Moschella admits the 5-foot-8-inch senior guard has adapted to the game so well that he often forgets.
"She doesn't act like a hearing-impaired person at all," he said. "She's just like any of the other girls on the team. I don't give her any slack -- she doesn't need it. She's so adaptable to the rest of us, that she's one of us. She even gets upset because I won't call her on her cell phone like I do the rest of the team. But I can't text message fast enough."
Yazbek, who has good voicing skills and is proficient at lip reading, said she started playing basketball when she was a pupil at Robinwood Lane Elementary.
But the road to where she is now was not without its share of potholes.
"It was pretty hard to socialize with the other kids," said Yazbek, who is the only deaf student at Boardman High and has an interpreter who goes with her to class. "People don't always know how to deal with my hearing disability. The people that have been around me my whole life have adjusted to me. They know how to work around me."
Limitations make her stronger
In spite of the challenges associated with being deaf, her biggest obstacle on the basketball court has come from her legs. Yazbek suffers from an uncommon disorder that is induced by exercise and is the result of increased pressure within the muscles of the lower leg that cuts off the blood supply to the area and causes pain.
"I've had to put a lot of time in because I have compartment muscle syndrome in both of my legs," said Yazbek, as she pointed to 12-inch scars on the outside of both legs. "I had surgery because I had throbbing pain during physical activity and I couldn't play much my freshman, sophomore or junior years. This year is the only year I've gotten to really play full time the whole season.
"I still have some pain," she continued. "But I worked out at the YMCA every day. I went to a lot of camps, a lot of shoot-a-rounds. So I've had a lot of limitations to deal with, but it makes me a stronger person. It teaches me to deal with life in many different ways. It's all about overcoming those limitations."
Yazbek is a defensive specialist who averages five rebounds, three steals and five points per game for the 16-2 Spartans.
Yazbek, a daughter of Lloyd and Linda Yazbek, has an older sister, Jennifer, 20, who also is deaf. In 2003, Jennifer was crowned Miss Deaf Ohio and finished runner-up at the Miss Deaf America pageant in 2004.
Both parents can hear.
"Her mother and father are so supportive," said Moschella. "They give their kids every opportunity to be successful in life. I can't imagine how it would be to find out that both of your kids are hearing impaired. But they taught both of them to make their impairment a positive, not a negative."
The only accommodation that Moschella has made on the court is the addition of Yazbek's mother to the sidelines this season to interpret for the coach using American Sign Language. Moschella said that since she reads lips, she would often miss his instructions if he turned his head away while talking to the rest of the team.
"He wanted me to pay attention more," Yazbek said. "If he wasn't looking right at me I couldn't tell what he was saying. He wants to make sure that I'm getting everything so that I'm not one step behind everyone else on the team. Having my mom here has made me a more complete player."
Yazbek was fitted with a cochlear implant in the sixth grade, which she said has been invaluable to every aspect of her life even though it allows her to hear only muffled sounds.
"It's a miracle," said Yazbek, who sports a 3.9 grade-point average and is planning to attend Ohio University to double major in forensic chemistry and criminal justice.
"It's changed my whole life. My speech, my grades, even my athletics all improved so much because of the implant. I'm part of the hearing world. Sometimes at night I take it off and I'm completely deaf. I'm back to square one. It's like a reality check. I don't take life for granted."