By Walter Villa
Alexis Austin has made a giant leap in her game the past couple of years.
She went from being a sophomore bench-warmer to earning a scholarship to the University of Colorado and making the U.S. Youth National team during the summer of her junior year.
That jump in performance is fitting since Austin’s leaping ability is a big part of what makes her so special.
Austin, a 6-foot-2 senior outside hitter at Cypress Falls (Houston), can touch 10-feet-7-inches, which is practically unheard of in girls’ volleyball.
Cypress Falls Coach Kathryn Stephenson, who has mentored many top talents -- including players on this past season’s team who have committed to LSU and Georgia Tech, respectively -- has never had a player who could touch higher than 10 feet.
“We’ve seen her grab the (basketball) rim and pull herself up,” Stephenson said. “She jumps so high and so fast that setters really have to adjust. Her athleticism is wow, amazing.”
Some of Austin’s raw ability could be attributed to her genes. Her father, Anthony Austin, played football at the University of Houston. Her mother, Shelia Teel-Austin, played basketball at Dillard University in New Orleans.
The big star in her family, however, is her cousin Carl Crawford, an outfielder who signed a seven-year, $142 million contract with the Boston Red Sox in 2010.
“I probably met him once when I was younger,” Austin said of Crawford, 30, who is from Houston but had signed to play pro ball while she was still in grade school.
Genetics aside, another possible explanation for Austin’s powers is her cross training. She played basketball when she was younger and ran track until last year. Naturally, she competed in the high jump, triple jump and long jump, setting a school record in the latter event.
Austin got a relatively late start in volleyball, competing for her middle school team at age 12. She didn’t join a club team until she hooked up with Texas Thunder as a high school sophomore.
She became a starter for Cypress Falls as a junior, earning team MVP honors and setting the district record for blocks. That summer, she earned one of 12 spots on the U.S. National Team that went to Turkey to compete in the Youth World Championships.
“I was shocked,” said Austin, who has a 3.4 grade-point average and aspires to be a sports agent. “I had come such a long way. I was really proud of myself.”
Unfortunately for Austin, she injured her hamstring the month before the team left for Turkey and could not make the trip.
“That was very disappointing,” Austin said. “The coaches didn’t want to send me home, but it was a time crunch. They just encouraged me to keep doing what I’m doing and get better.”
Austin took their advice. This past November, she led Cypress Falls to the Class 5A state semifinals, where they lost to Boyd (McKinney, Texas).
Just getting that far was an impressive achievement for Cypress Falls, which had lost three players to ankle injuries early in the season: setter Kristen McKenna, outside hitter Mylan Eugene (an LSU commit) and middle blocker Patricia Van Pelt.
Austin and middle hitter Chanell Clar-Bibbs (a Georgia Tech recruit) carried Cypress Falls into the playoffs, and Eugene and Van Pelt returned for the stretch run.
Stephenson said Austin, who is now playing club ball for Houston Juniors, became a “great leader” this past fall.
“She really stepped up and has improved so much,” Stephenson said. “l am excited to see what she does at the next level.”
At Colorado, Austin will be joined by two other outstanding recruits: 6-foot setter Nicole Edelman of Fairview (Boulder, Colo.) and 5-3 libero Chelsey Keoho of Kamehameha-Hapalama (Kailua, Hawaii). Colorado finished 6-24 last season, which means the freshmen should have a chance to play right away.
Stephenson said she got to know the Colorado coaches during the recruiting process and came away certain Austin will be a good fit with the Buffaloes.
“I have no doubt,” Stephenson said, “that Alexis can become an All-American at Colorado.”