Alexa Baltes' road from dribbling basketballs in the basement at age 2 to winning the NCAA Division III women's national championship two years ago was as much about hard work as it was natural talent, her coaches say.
"She was literally the player that would catch your eye, because she just worked so hard," Illinois Wesleyan basketball coach Mia Smith said.
Alexa "Lexi" BaltesAge: 22
Hometown: St. Charles
School: Notre Dame Law School
Who inspires you? My grandma Audrey Lake, one of the strongest, kindest, most energetic and most caring people in the world.
What book are you reading? Casebooks, casebooks and casebooks for law school. And "The Invention of Wings" by Sue Monk Kidd.
What's on your iPod? Country music.
The three words that best describe you: Grateful. Competitive. Disciplined.
Hard work on and off the court has made Alexa, who goes by "Lexi," among nine finalists for the NCAA Woman of the Year award. The award, which will be given out Sunday in Indianapolis, recognizes athletic and academic achievements, as well as community service and leadership.
Lexi, 22, of St. Charles, graduated this year from Illinois Wesleyan University, where she carried a 3.89 GPA while majoring in English and political science.
She's now a first-year law school student at the University of Notre Dame. The school's philosophy of aiming to serve others is something Lexi said she really identifies with.
"Giving back -- I hope that's important to everybody," said Lexi, who was valedictorian at St. Charles East High School in 2010. "That's the whole idea."
In college, Lexi was a Capital One Academic All-America selection for 2013-14. She also was among 10 athletes named to the 2014 Allstate Women's Basketball Coaches Association "Good Works Team," which recognizes those who have made a commitment to improving the lives of others.
Smith said Lexi stood out the first time she saw her play as a high school senior.
It just so happened that Lexi suffered an ankle injury at that game. Her reaction?
"She tried to play through it with an ankle the size of a watermelon. Yet, after the game she was apologizing for getting hurt," Smith said. "That's the type of kid that she was."
Lexi had not only the natural talent but the determination it takes to be a great player, said Smith, who's coached hundreds of kids over nearly three decades.
"She was a constant study of the game, whether it was mental or physical," she said. "She's by far one of the smartest kids I've coached."
Despite all her success and recognition, Lexi always stayed grounded, Smith said.
"She's done just a ton of good for our university. And in the process of all of that, she's the most humble kid I've ever met," Smith said.
Lexi was a member of Illinois Wesleyan's Student-Athlete Advisory Council and president of the local chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Two years ago, she took part in a summer mission trip to Nicaragua through Christ Community Church in St. Charles. The group helped build a building that would function as church, school and community center; put roofs on some homes; and did a lot of evangelism, she said.
"It was eye-opening to see that we all kind of need the same things," she said. "People who are so different from you are really not so different. You can communicate with them the same way as your neighbor."
She's also been a mentor and pen pal to a young girl from Nicaragua for several years through the organization Compassion International.
Participants support -- both emotionally and financially -- disadvantaged children abroad, Lexi said. Her parents, Tom and Marsha, also participate and sponsor a child.
"My parents taught me the values of service," she said. "I think they've been great role models in that respect. If you want to learn how to serve, watch somebody do it well -- and I have watched them."
Lexi would have played 10 sports if she could have, her father said.
"From when she was a little girl, she was very competitive. She couldn't get enough of sports," he said.
After the family moved to St. Charles in 1997, Lexi started figure skating, following the example of her older sister, Annie. She was the only girl on her T-ball team at age 7, and she also played soccer and tennis, and ran cross-country.
"She just really threw herself into whatever she did," Tom Baltes said.
In high school, Lexi handled herself exceptionally as a freshman on a senior-heavy varsity team, quickly winning the respect of her teammates, St. Charles East basketball coach Lori Drumtra said.
"I kind of threw her into the mix there and she handled it very, very well," she said. "From a very young age, even as a freshman, she was very coachable, very, very smart, and not afraid."
Lexi played point guard -- a crucial position akin to a second coach on the court, Drumtra said.
"She has such a good personality. She's not cocky, she's not arrogant, she was respectful -- not just to me but to teammates and to officials. And with that, there is really no room for criticism," she said.
Drumtra, who also taught Lexi AP history her junior year, described her as a serious and meticulous student. She's also helped Drumtra run a basketball summer camp for several years.
Lexi misses basketball, but law school's competitive atmosphere partly fills that void, she said. Her older brother, Kyle, is an attorney, which helped steer her toward the law.
"I'm pretty disciplined, in that I'm a very firm believer that practice makes perfect," she said. "I'd like to think that's the kind of player I was."
Lexi is just beginning to grapple with what kind of law she might want to practice.
"I thought maybe I could rule some things out when I got to law school, but since I've gotten here, I realized that's not true," she said. "I love everything. That's my biggest problem right now."
Lexi and her parents, along with representatives from Illinois Wesleyan, plan to attend the awards banquet Sunday in Indianapolis.
When she found out she was nominated, Lexi was reluctant to share the news, Drumtra said.
"When you ask her about it, it's almost painful for her to have to be in the limelight like this," she said. "It's funny, because she has no problem being in the limelight on the basketball court."
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