USA TODAY High School Sports is featuring each of the 12 finalists for the Gatorade Athlete of the Year award during a two-week series leading into the July 15 announcement in Los Angeles. The award is given to the top male and female among the 12 finalists, who won their respective sport’s national player of the year award earlier in the 2013-14 school year. USA TODAY High School Sports administrates the nationwide selection process in collaboration with Gatorade.
Being arguably the country’s best high school volleyball player may not even register as the most amazing thing Alexa Filley has pulled off. She can lead others to where they’d never dream of going themselves.
Like deep into Halloween hijinks.
Go back a couple of seasons to her junior year in Louisville, Ky. The star at Assumption High befriended Courtney Crable, a fairly new club teammate who also happened to be a standout at the rival high school during the fall. Being friendly during the season — when they’d regularly clash late in the state tournament — had its detractors. But Filley couldn’t resist inviting her admittedly scaredy-cat friend to a corn maze.
“She won’t even watch a scary movie,” Filley quipped.
Laugh all you want, but could that also be seen as a subtle but valuable tangent of leadership and persuasion? It sure seems like it sums up the type of person she is to be named the Gatorade National Volleyball Player of the Year.
Crable recalled: “It was a group of people, and somehow I made it through. I was freaking out because I hate scary things. But it was cool. Alexa calmed me down.”
Filley is a 5-foot-9 setter who couldn’t have played the role much better. She was the soothing voice who had her team’s fate comfortably at her fingertips.
She won four state championships and produced nearly 1,300 assists as a senior alone while her team went 36-6. Assumption coach Ron Kordes points out that Filley became a fearless, prepared and intuitive defensive player who took full advantage of what Crable calls “crazy jumping ability.”
Filley had 334 digs and 58 blocks, all part of a skill set that landed her at Auburn and in sturdy position to start as a freshman as a young cornerstone. AU officials brag they’re bringing in a top-15 recruiting class. The setter and her corn-maze companion are, naturally, a big part of the puzzle.
“I always wanted to be a setter,” Filley said. “I started doing little-kids camps at four or five and was in club at about eight. Coaches told me when I was young, I had good hands. I don’t know — I liked touching the ball a lot. When you’re a setter you get to have a lot of interaction with people.”
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what, or who, put Filley in such position to thrive in a variety of endeavors. Her high school grade-point average rarely even featured a “B” and she’s done community service all over Louisville, including with Special Olympics and at a downtown homeless shelter.
Sarah Drury Petkovic, an idol of Filley’s who is on the Louisville staff now, said her former summertime club player “touches so many hearts off the court.” That includes Petkovic’s 3-year-old daughter, who affectionately has an imaginary friend named Alexa — for when she can’t see the real thing.
The real deal, Filley’s friends say, is she’s also had help reaching this point. What’s most easy to see (and hear) about Filley is her family. Her final nationals tournament before becoming a collegian was a chance to show off a dedication to the sport that has consistently included one of Filley’s grandmothers dropping her off at 6 a.m. for some practice time before high school classes early in her career. Kordes marveled at the tour de force she had in Orlando, Fla., in late June for club nationals.
Auburn coach Rick Nold raved that his incoming Tiger was often “easily noticeable as the best player on the court — and there were a lot of amazing ones out there. I’d say she was the best defensive setter in the tournament. She was all over the place.”
She had grandparents on both sides watching her, along with an aunt and uncle among others who wanted to see what was widely and admirably know as the “farewell tour.” Kordes, who is also the club director for KIVA (Kentucky- Indiana Volleyball Academy) and witnesses Filley and Crable together, had a team that finished third in the country before the pair headed directly to the lovely plains of Alabama.
That the two will play at the next level together is largely a coincidence.
They didn’t talk much about the recruiting process together, both independently said. Nold happens to have Louisville ties. Filley had an aunt who played at UL and has known Petkovic for years. She happens to come from a family that is (gasp!) actually bigger Kentucky fans.
If there are hard feelings about her not staying in-state, those can dissipate by meeting Filley. Or, as Crable can attest, becoming her teammate. The two weren’t exactly close when Crable opted to switch club teams. It took their fathers having a friendly conversation to get the two in tune with the idea of being on the same side of the net. Truth be told, it was a couple of competitive people having some initial trouble looking beyond the set scores.
“Alexa may have some people that are jealous,” Crable said. “But she’s very modest about everything that she’s accomplished. There’s no need to keep her in check.” Not even since January, when Filley was surprised with the Gatorade award during school. She’ll leave on-campus workouts to attend the ESPYs in Los Angeles in mid-July. “I think sometimes Alexa didn’t realize how good she was,” Petkovic said. “But you see her over the years, the work she’s put in has given her so much confidence.”
Assumption has produced 14 Gatorade state volleyball players of the year since 1997, but this was the first national honor. Kordes calculates that Filley must be the first under 6-feet to ever be so highly recognized. “Alexa can dive on her knees, do just about anything. And she can save it from the net,” Crable says of her pal’s worthiness, which included her own tough losses to Filley in the state finals as a junior, and the semis last fall. “Jump and twist, whatever. She’ll find a way to not only get to a ball, but making it a good one for her teammates. Of course, none of that just happens. All the work she puts in — I learned from her when we became club teammates, that’s how she makes a lot of things look simple.” A calming presence. A straight face.
Filley takes it in stride, quick to note she’s not invincible. She wants to be a pharmacist, but also points out her vulnerability. She may need to meet someone with her own level of persuasion to take a different medical route. “I like to help people,” she said. “But I don’t like blood.”