Markie Rojas leaving his mark on IRT circuit

Markie Rojas sizes up his next serve during the 2016 UnitedHealthcare US Open Doubles Final in Minneapolis, Minn. Photo by Restrung Magazine.

Markie Rojas sizes up his next serve during the 2016 UnitedHealthcare US Open Doubles Final in Minneapolis, Minn. Photo by Restrung Magazine.

Marco “Markie” Rojas will turn 24 on July 16, and in just four years on the men’s professional International Racquetball Tour (IRT) circuit the Stockton, Calif. resident has risen to become the #7-ranked player in the world.

During this upcoming off season Rojas plans to train five days each week and strengthen his body through targeted weight training, expand his cardiovascular capacity and explosive quickness through a variety of intense workouts, refine his body through a well-conceived diet, and develop another serve to augment his already-effective “wallpaper” lob serve down the right wall.

In addition he will spend hours each week developing something that he has come to realize will take him into the next phase of his professional career: his own unique brand.

Over the past year his branding efforts have included developing a strong social media presence on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube along with his own website and a very visible, high profile in his community helping underprivileged kids get—and stay—healthy. This is in addition to becoming one of the most recognizable stars on Tour. The branding has come while being focused on becoming the best professional racquetball player possible, challenging top IRT players like #1-ranked Kane Waselenchuk and others ranked above him.

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That would seem to be a heavy load for some, but for Rojas it feeds right into his work ethic.

“I knew I had to make a change (getting more personally involved in branding himself). I felt no racquetball manufacturer or Tour could promote or market me as well as I would. I know myself the best, and with access to social media it was my best opportunity to take full control this past season,” said Rojas, a former national and international juniors champion prior to joining the IRT Tour. He also won the 2016 USA Intercollegiate Racquetball singles title after finishing as a runner-up the previous season.

Carrying a full workload the past few years – training regularly, playing on a grueling IRT Tour, taking college courses before graduating from the University of the Pacific in 2016 and getting involved in several community service-based projects—restricted his efforts during the branding process. “Still, I wish I had been more focused on it when I was 18 years old. I had many people in my ear (telling me) about it until I saw how important it truly was,” Markie Rojas said.

Now he attacks his image-making every bit as intensely as he prepares for any IRT Tier 1 Pro Stop tournament.

“I work hard every day to promote, and the goal is to be recognized and respected as a professional athlete,” Markie Rojas said. “It’s a process, and I know it is not going to happen overnight.”

One of the best ways to promote himself is to be a top professional player, and this past season he became a steady competitor who solidified his hold on a top ranking on the IRT circuit. At the end of 2014 he was ranked 10th, then he rose to the eighth spot in 2015, and has ended each of the last two seasons as the #7-ranked player on Tour. The sky is the limit, and at 24 years of age he already has several top quality sponsors in his corner including Head Racquetball.

During the 2016-2017 IRT season he enjoyed a successful campaign, with his best performance an 11-9, 11-9, 11-6 quarterfinal loss in the 2017 Shamrock Shootout IRT Pro-Am to Waselenchuk, the dominant force on the Tour the past 10 years. Earlier in the season-opening Novasors Ghost of Georgetown Kansas City Open, he served notice to the professional racquetball community of his potential by extending #2-ranked Rocky Carson to four games in an exciting quarterfinal loss by scores of 8-11, 5-11, 11-4 and 10-12. A few weeks later he faced Carson again in the United Healthcare US Open and dropped another hard fought match by scores of 2, (9), 6 and 2.

Markie Rojas captured the 2016 UnitedHealthcare US Open Doubles Championship with his brother Jose. Markie and Jose beat Daniel De La Rosa and Edson Martinez 15-10, 15-5. Photo of the Rojas brothers with US Open Tournament Director Doug Ganim by Restrung Magazine.

Markie Rojas captured the 2016 UnitedHealthcare US Open Doubles Championship with his brother Jose. Markie and Jose Rojas beat Daniel De La Rosa and Edson Martinez 15-10, 15-5. Photo of the Rojas brothers with US Open Tournament Director Doug Ganim by Restrung Magazine.

In the pro doubles bracket at the 2016 UnitedHealthcare US Open Racquetball Championships, Markie Rojas teamed up with his brother, Jose Rojas, to win over Daniel De La Rosa and Edson Martinez, 15-10, 15-5.

The Rojas brothers suffered a disappointing 11-10 tie-breaker loss to Carson and Jose Diaz at the 2017 USA Racquetball National Doubles Championships in February. Markie said the defeat set him back emotionally but also reinforced in his mind the notion that tough losses are teachable moments.

On his website Markie talked of the loss, and how it stayed with him for a while after the tournament. After a while he realized that “…these tough losses are emotional and can be difficult (to recover from). However, I always play with purpose, and I am constantly reminded that I live to play another day.”

Markie’s website and social media pages are key tools in branding, and he wants to achieve more than just additional followers and customers who are intent on taking racquetball lessons or hiring him as a personal trainer. According to STRATEGY, LLC, good branding creates instant name recognition and trust, and gives real meaning to a person or business.

In time he wants his brand to convey some very specific and lasting meanings.

“The things I want people to associate with me and my brand are transition, journey, being ready for new stages in life and — most importantly — my faith in God,” Markie Rojas said. “I trust God with my career, whether it is racquetball, my career after, my life transitioning and to be a devoted husband.”

Q AND A WITH MARKIE

How did you get started playing racquetball? “I began playing racquetball at the age of four. Both of my older brothers – Jose and Michael—played racquetball and made me want to play. My father got us into the sport after he retired from soccer.”
When did you realize you could become an elite, professional player? “Many open level players were telling me I could be that good when I was winning junior tournaments, people like the Ellis family and many juniors who were older than me. I was lucky to have great mentorship from people like John Ellis, Jody Nance and my older brother, Jose.”
What players did you admire growing up, and who provided inspiration to you? “I grew up watching pro tournaments in Stockton and saw many great athletes like Sudsy Monchik, Cliff Swain, Jason Mannino and John Ellis. But Alvaro Beltran would be considered one player I admired the most, his pinch game was great. Being a Mexican professional player he opened my eyes because he opened the door to many Hispanic players.”
Can you describe your nutritional diet? “It is a pretty basic high protein, low carb diet. My biggest weakness is ice cream.”
What is your favorite go-to, crunch time serve? “My ‘go-to serve’ would be a high-lob wallpaper to the right side. It is still my favorite today.”
What other accolades have you collected over your racquetball career? “I won my first world junior title at age six; I’ve also won more than 20 junior world and national titles in both singles and doubles. I was featured in the December 2012 edition of Sports Illustrated “Faces in the Crowd.” In 2016, I was the Men’s US Open Doubles Champion; and USAR Men’s Collegiate champion.”

By Don Grigas

Don Grigas is an award-winning journalist who grew up on the south side of Chicago and is now living in Bolingbrook, IL, where he first developed a passion for racquetball. In 1979 Don played his first game of racquetball at the Bolingbrook Park District Racquet and Health Club. Within two years Don rose from a Novice to an Open player, and shortly thereafter became the club professional at the Naper Olympic Fitness Center for more than 20 years until that facility closed in 2007. After winning three state championships in doubles, Don retired from active playing and now writes for the IRT web site, as well as working on other freelance projects.