(Courtesy of Gatorade)

Averi Carlson’s volleyball gift is that she can turn the ordinary into the extraordinary. Carlson makes setting look like performance art, having recorded 919 assists during her senior season at Lovejoy High School in Lucas, Texas. Her brilliance has earned her four All-America nods, a scholarship to Baylor and, as announced Wednesday, the Gatorade National Volleyball Player of the Year award. Past winners of the award include April Ross, Kerri Walsh Jennings and Megan Hodge.

Carlson, who graduated high school in December, stopped by the Lovejoy gymnasium early Tuesday morning for what she was told would be a media interview about winning Gatorade Texas State Player of the Year. Instead, coach Natalie Puckett told the 6-foot setter she had earned national recognition.

“I have no words,” Carlson said afterwards, beaming and shaking her head.

Carlson normally incites that kind of bemusement in opposing players. Ranked as the nation’s fourth-best player in the Class of 2022 by PrepVolleyball, Carlson helped the Leopards to three consecutive Texas 5A state championships, none more satisfying than the team’s 3-0 sweep of Grapevine on Nov. 20 in her final high school game.

Carlson led Lovejoy with 10 kills and 16 assists in the victory, while also recording 10 digs and two aces. It was the kind of performance that college coaches had taken notice of years before, making her recruiting process one of the most closely watched in the nation. Carlson intended to commit to Texas, the 2020-21 national runner-up, before deciding to attend a camp at Baylor at the urging of her parents.

By the end of the camp, Carlson had changed her mind, falling “in love” with the program and its guiding ethos. “Just being able to play for a program that’s so God-centered is something that’s super important to me,” she said.

The Bears, who went 22-6 in 2021 and lost to Minnesota in the third round of the NCAA Tournament, are confident Carlson can bring the same stability to their program as she did for Lovejoy and her Dallas-based club team, Skyline Juniors.

Carlson’s experience stems from a challenge she took on her sophomore year of high school. Shy by nature, Carlson realized that as her star grew, she needed to become more of a vocal leader. She stepped out of her comfort zone and into the spotlight, and never looked back. She became the player she dreamed of being when she discovered the sport as a kid watching her older cousins play.

“I was like, ‘I want to be like them,’” Carlson said. “Getting to play volleyball and wear the jerseys and the kneepads and all that stuff.”

During those years, when Carlson wasn’t in the gym, she was studying the sport. Watching YouTube videos of Team USA and former Wisconsin star Lauren Carlini, she learned what it takes to be an elite setter.

“It takes a lot of time and patience, since you have to connect with everyone and all your hitters,” Carlson said. “[It is] so technical.”

Because she graduated in December, Carlson will enroll early at Baylor and have the chance to immerse herself in the program. It will be the beginning of what she hopes is a fruitful college campaign and the launching pad for more national team experience and, eventually, a professional career. Last July, Carlson played for the United States’ Under-20 team at the World Championships in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Five months earlier, Athletes Unlimited launched a professional indoor women’s volleyball league – the only one of its kind in the U.S. – with players switching teams every week of the season and earning individual points. Athletes Unlimited’s network of fantasy sports-styled leagues also includes professional softball, lacrosse and basketball.

Carlson, though, is not looking too far ahead just yet. First on her agenda is achieving excellence at Baylor. And with the 2022 campaign set to kick off in the fall, Carlson will spend the next few months learning from her coaches and building bonds with her teammates.

The Baylor staff does not expect a steep learning curve. Carlson, after all, has a flair for the extraordinary and the ability to do something better than perhaps anyone her age: Square her body, bend her knees and push the ball skyward toward a soaring teammate moving in for the kill.

Joshua Needelman is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports. He has also contributed to The Guardian, The Washington Post and Men’s Health Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JoshNeedelman.