You probably wouldn’t pick Alexa Filley out of a line-up as one of the top volleyball players in the Class of 2014. Standing only 5'9", the setter from Louisville, Ky., could get lost among the over-six-footers who dominate this year’s Fab 50 list and every recent compilation of the top players out there, but on the court, it’s a different story.
“You’d think a ball was going to be an overpass and here comes Alexa, soaring, staying out of the net somehow, and making a hittable ball out of the thing,” said Filley’s Assumption High School coach Ron Kordes. “When she’s setting or moving around out there, she makes it look so easy, like she’s on ice skates or something.”
On the back of Filley’s smooth setting, and the contributions of fellow Fab 50 honoree Alyssa Cavanaugh and Underclassmen to Watch Kenzie Maloney and Molly Sauer, Assumption took home its fourth-consecutive state championship this fall and Filley her second-consecutive state tournament MVP award.
Then in early January, just after returning to school from winter break, Olympic silver medalist beach volleyball player April Ross appeared in Filley’s theology classroom to present the Auburn recruit with Gatorade’s National Player of the Year award, thus ending her existence as an underrated and mostly unknown player.
“It was so amazing,” Filley said of receiving the award. “I was so surprised.”
Later that week, local news station WLKY interviewed her live, and in July, she’ll go to California for the first time ever to attend the ESPYs and brush elbows with other athletes—high school, college, and professional—who are at the top of their sport.
“I didn’t know [that I got to attend the ESPYs] until they told me in the assembly,” said Filley. “My mouth just dropped.”
Despite all the attention paid to her height and being only the third setter to win the national Gatorade award (after Denise Boylan in 1997 and Wisconsin’s Lauren Carlini last year), those who know Filley best were not surprised.
“We played a pretty rough, high-level high school schedule,” said Kordes. “We played against a lot of teams with outstanding offensive players and Alexa was second on our team in blocking.”
She finished the season with 58 total blocks. She also ranked first on the team in digs with 334.
“Would she have a little more advantage if she was 6'2"?” asked Kordes. “Probably, but she plays pretty high for her size.”
Although volleyball talent runs in her veins—her aunt played for Louisville and introduced her to the game—it was more likely hard work and determination that brought Filley to the top.
“She improves every time I see her,” said Auburn head coach Rick Nold. “She’s that kind of person who’s always trying to add a little something to her game. That’s part of what makes her special: she wants to keep improving.”
Throughout her high school career, you could walk into the Assumption gym at 6 a.m. and find Filley there, working out with a trainer or getting extra setting reps. In the summer she’d be out on the sand courts.
“It wasn’t out of concern or fear for her job,” said Kordes. “She was our setter these past two years, but it was just her desire to get better. That self-motivation is a rare quality.”
Yet still when asked what will be her greatest challenge in transitioning to the college game, Filley cited the travel and increased practice and training time. Her coaches, past and future, believe she’ll have no problem.
“She has the potential to come in and help us right away,” said Nold. “She comes in with a lot of experience playing at a high level, and to me she has that ability to come in and make an impact in a lot of ways. Not just on the floor but also her work ethic and the intangibles that she brings.”
Even with great foot-speed and vertical jump, a ferocious work ethic, and thousands of setting reps, a good setter must have an advanced game IQ. Filley’s, according to Kordes who would know after five years as her coach, is excellent.
“A+. Well, let me give her an A,” he said. “Alexa has a great court sense out there. There were times when we had to say, hey, you’ve got to distribute the ball around a little bit, because no matter the score she wants the ball put away. Like any setter she wants it finished, but she was pretty accurate in finding the right hitter the majority of the time.”
Assumption will dearly miss its star setter after she goes further south to begin college in the fall, but Auburn is certainly looking forward to seeing how she’ll make its program better.
The Tigers went 19-11 last season, taking a sixth place finish in the SEC, despite defeating perpetual powerhouse Nebraska in four sets on Aug. 31. Their subsequent failure to follow up that big win with other important non-conference victories led to them not moving on to the NCAA post-season (even though LSU, Arkansas, and Texas A&M who ranked below them in the SEC were chosen for the tournament).
Setter Chelsea Wintzinger who led the Tigers in assists in 2013 graduates this spring, but Alyssa Ivey who set the other half of Auburn’s 6-2 will be a junior in the fall, so Filley will have to compete with her and Ciara Richards, another junior setter, for playing time. However, if her story turns out to be anything like last year’s Gatorade Player of the Year Carlini’s, we’ll see her make a big difference.
When asked if he thought Filley could make a Carlini-sized impact, Kordes hesitated. “If I were to slap the pressure on [Coach Nold] and Alexa that they had to get to the final match, they’d probably kill me, but we sure hope so.
“Last year, [Nold] asked me if he could have Alexa a year early and I said no, and I asked him the other day when he was in town, can I have her one more year? And, of course, he told me no. We’re kind of fighting over her.”
In the meantime, Filley has one more club season to play with KIVA (Kentucky-Indiana Volleyball Academy), a few more high school classes to complete—while hopefully maintaining her stellar 3.91 GPA—and a summer of sand tournaments to win before shipping off to Auburn where she plans to major in pre-pharmacy.
Who are you going to take to the ESPYs?
My parents. My little brother really wants to go but he can’t.
What’s the best thing about going to an all-girls school?
I can just roll out of bed and go to school.
What other sports did you play when you were younger?
Basketball, softball, and field hockey.
Who are your volleyball role models?
One of my coaches, Sarah Drury [Petkovic, University of Louisville player in the early 2000s and national team player from 2003-07] and Kerri Walsh and April Ross.
What do you consider your biggest volleyball achievement so far?
It’s a tie between winning my fourth state championship and winning [the Gatorade Player of the Year] award.
How do you compensate for not being very tall?
I’ve got to be smart and make sure I see my block and move the ball around.
Originally published in April 2014