As the shortest of the top 40 players on the AVP Pro Beach Volleyball Tour, Laryssa Mereszczak is used to being underestimated.
Since she began playing professionally in 2009, Mereszczak has been passed over countless times for partners of taller stature and better pedigrees.
But the 5-foot-7, 31-year-old Grangeville High graduate and former Northwest Nazarene volleyball player has never been one to realign her goals because of someone else's opinion.
The criticism only makes her work harder.
"A lot of people say, 'Why are you even doing this?' " Mereszczak said. "But that's what it's about to me is just sticking with it and seeing how far I can go."
On the first stop of this season's AVP Tour on May 29-June 1 in St. Petersburg, Fla., Mereszczak teamed with 6-foot-2 partner Megan Wallin, a Michigan State alum, for a ninth-place finish in a tournament won by three-time Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings and partner April Ross, a 2012 Olympic silver medalist.
It was Mereszczak's best finish on the highly competitive tour, where only a handful of top players receive enough endorsements to forgo a job outside of the sport.
Mereszczak finished the St. Petersburg tournament ranked fourth in digs per game (5.14 average) and eighth with 36 digs. She won $2,500.
It is small victories like those that keep her going.
"I chose a sport that basically pins me as the underdog," Mereszczak said. "I'm too short to really make it anywhere, and that was really what fueled my fire all along.
"For a true competitor, being underestimated can be one of the strongest motivating factors out there."
Despite growing up in a landlocked state, Mereszczak said she always wanted to play pro beach volleyball. She remembers watching the sport on TV with her dad, Ihor Mereszczak, from the time she was about 6 years old.
"I saw it on TV and I was like, 'That would be the dream life for me,' " she said. "Living on the beach and playing volleyball. I always wanted to do it, but it seemed like such a far off thing living in Idaho."
Mereszczak was a dominant outside hitter at tiny Grangeville High in central Idaho, graduating in 2000 with the school record for kills, aces and digs.
After sending out recruiting videos, she landed a scholarship to play for Division II Northwest Nazarene in Nampa, where she started at outside hitter and later moved to libero.
While playing at NNU, Mereszczak began traveling several times a year to amateur doubles beach tournaments in Oregon and California, solidifying her love for the sport.
"When I was recruiting Laryssa - or Lary, as we called her - I recognized that her determination and ability to play with heart made up for what she might lack in height," former NNU coach Darlene Brasch said. "I believe that those qualities, plus love and enthusiasm for the game, are reasons why she is where she is today."
Mereszczak graduated from NNU in 2005 and began working as a graphic designer at Hewlett-Packard in Boise while playing intermittently in as many amateur tournaments as she could.
A traumatic knee injury in April 2005 - she was playing indoors and tore her ACL and meniscus and fractured the top of the femur in her left leg - nearly put an end to her athletic career. After surgery, doctors told Mereszczak she shouldn't play impact sports anymore.
"I told him he could cut my head off, but I am still going to try," she said.
Mereszczak continued to live and work in Boise during the 1 years it took to fully recover from the injury, but felt disconnected from the beach volleyball community that she so badly wanted to break into.
"Finally I got fed up and I was just like, 'I am going to move,' " Mereszczak said. "I literally packed up everything and put it in storage, put what I could in my car and just drove to California."
Mereszczak moved from Palo Alto to El Segundo and finally to the mecca of beach volleyball - Hermosa Beach, where she has been living for the past year and a half.
"It's super tough because if you move here to California, there's definitely a bit of a clique in that all the girls play together all the time, they all play against each other," Mereszczak said. "It's really hard to break into that, especially me being like 5-foot-nothing, coming from Idaho.
"It takes more time. I would play against girls over and over again. You beat them in a tournament, you beat them in another tournament and then you ask them to play and they're like, 'Oh no, I think I am going to play with this person.' "
In 2009, playing with partner Sara Fredrickson at the AVP Tour's Muskegon (Mich.) Open, Mereszczak took Walsh Jennings and then-partner Rachel Wacholder Scott to three games, eventually losing 21-17, 19-21, 15-9.
"It was kind of a big thing for me that year," said Mereszczak, who had to fight through an open qualifying tournament just to make the main draw. "If I can take a game off the best player in the world, I feel like there is reason for this."
Although it has taken years to establish herself as a contender in the sport - with one professional victory at the 2012 National Volleyball League Motherlode in Aspen, Colo., out of 64 pro appearances - Mereszczak has worked her way to 33rd in the individual AVP women's rankings. She and Wallin are ninth in the team rankings heading into the second stop of the season July 3-6 in Milwaukee.
She'll continue to pursue her dream one day - and one dig - at a time.
"If you want something badly enough, you can make it happen,'' she said, "and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.''
Rachel Roberts: 377-6422, Twitter: @IDS_VarsityX