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Elizabeth Forward's Ribarchak takes inspirational journey to get back on field

| Monday, April 28, 2014, 11:15 p.m.
Elizabeth Foward's Lexi Riberchak sets up on defense against Southmoreland on Wednesday, April 16, 2014.
Ronald Vezzani Jr. | for the Daily News
Elizabeth Foward's Lexi Riberchak sets up on defense against Southmoreland on Wednesday, April 16, 2014.

It was an innocent observation.

Elizabeth Forward third baseman Lexi Ribarchak was making some splendid plays in the Warriors' early-season Section 3-AAA softball victory over West Mifflin, whose coach, Casey Phillips, was enjoying a birds-eye view of it all while coaching the Titans offense from the third-base box.

“I went over to their coach (Elizabeth Forward's Harry Rutherford) after the game and said, ‘You've got yourself a gem there. She's really good.'”

Phillips didn't realize that Ribarchak, a petite junior, was playing the game she loves while in a lot of pain.

Ribarchak, 16, was diagnosed in February 2012 with a condition known as Miserable Malrotation Syndrome, which triggers a set of anatomical changes to the legs, causing knee pain and instability.

She underwent surgery two months later to realign her kneecaps. The operations were so delicate that a specialist from a St. Louis hospital was called on to assist doctors at UPMC Childrens Hospital.

“One day, she started saying her knees hurt,” said Candy Ribarchak, the girl's mother. “We noticed that the one knee was turning inward a little. I took her to two doctors, and they thought it was something with the muscles or tendons that were causing the kneecap to turn in.”

After months of rehabilitation, the condition worsened.

“We finally found a doctor at Childrens Hospital who immediately looked at her and diagnosed her,” Candy Ribarchak said. “He said it is very rare and happens to 1 in 600,000 people.”

Surgery included severing the femur bone to straighten the kneecap, which caused Lexi Ribarchak's foot to rotate backward and prompted doctors to cut the foot above the ankle and rotate it back in place.

Everything is bolstered by steel rods. She spent months in casts and walking boots, then started to return to normalcy.

But, the family noticed that the other leg was showing similar symptoms, and eventually, doctors performed more surgeries to correct the same condition.

It was just another long process of recovery for Lexi Ribarchak.

“She's worked hard to get back and she's been in the weight room getting stronger,” Rutherford said. “She's being careful.”

Ribarchack's playing time has been increasing as the regular season progresses.

“It's a thrill to work with her,” Rutherford said. “Most kids would have been happy to just have had successful surgery. She couldn't wait to get back on the field.”

Ribarchak hopes to finish out the season unscathed. But there'll be no summer softball this year, it seems. She also plays for a traveling team coached by Rutherford.

In June, she's scheduled to undergo more surgery, this time to correct a condition known as scoliosis, a sideways curvature of the spine.

“I'm just pushing through it,” Lexi Ribarchak said. “I figure there are a lot of people who are way more worse off than I am. I”m just trying to stay positive.”

Phillips, whose West Mifflin team leads Section 3-AAA by a game over Elizabeth Forward and Southmoreland, said he was so impressed with Ribarchak's abilities that he wrote a letter to Elizabeth Forward officials.

“I just told them that it was that type of resiliency and perseverence that should make us all feel motivated,” Phillips said. “We take a lot of things for granted.”

That same motivation was driving Ribarchak on Monday as she looked ahead to a scheduled showdown with Southmoreland on Tuesday afternoon.

“Big game for us,” she said, smiling.

Meanwhile, Phillips said he has become friends with Ribarchak and emphasized the great respect he has had for what she's trying to do.

“It's the reason why you start coaching,” he said. “She's such an inspiration.”

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