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Keystone’s Exley Eager to Tackle Her Next Volleyball Challenge at Slippery Rock University

KNOX, Pa. (EYT/D9) — It was a fluke play. An accident. An unfortunate incident that changed the trajectory of two careers on the volleyball court at Keystone.

When Leah Exley was a sophomore, she was a middle hitter, not yet the force on the outside that she would become in later seasons. 
Alex Johnston was a senior setter.

Their fates were about to collide — literally.

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Redbank Valley, Keystone, and Union/A-C Valley sports coverage on Explore and is brought to you by Heeter Lumber.

Exley was peeling away from the net, chasing a dump from the other team when she dropped her elbow and smashed Johnston’s two front teeth, driving them back into her upper jaw.

Johnston had to have her jaw wired shut to heal.

It’s something Exley said she will never forget.

(Pictured above, Keystone senior Leah Exley signs her national letter of intent to play volleyball at Slippery Rock University. She is flanked by her parents, Bryan and Kim. Behind her, from left, is Keystone assistant principal and assistant athletic director Jason Best, athletic director Bill Irwin, varsity volleyball coach Bryan Mong and high school principal Kelli McNaughton.)

“I felt so bad,” Exley said. “I was an underclassman, but she and I were really good friends.”

That play changed the way Exley thought about volleyball.

She saw how devastated Johnston was about being sidelined during her senior season. Exley vowed to never take a match, a set, a play for granted.

“It taught me to play extra hard and treat every game like it is my last game because you never know if it is,” Exley said.

Exley thought her senior season at Keystone might be her last. She was being recruited for volleyball, but had her heart set on attending Slippery Rock University to study education.

At the time, The Rock wasn’t one of the schools in contact with her.

Then fate intervened again.

Exley sent longtime SRU volleyball coach Laurie Lokash an email with a highlight reel before her senior season. It was enough to intrigue Lokash.

“I pretty much had the mindset that if I can play volleyball there, I’ll play,” Exley said. “If not, I’ll just play for the club team because I still wanted to play some form of volleyball.

“After I sent her the highlight tape, (Lokash) messaged me and said she saw some good things,” Exley added. “I was like, ‘OK. There’s some hope.’”

Lokash came to see Exley play in person.

She also had a former player on the staff at Kane and asked her to evaluate Exley during the District 9 Class 2A championship match, which the Panthers lost in five sets.

Exley had 17 kills and 26 digs in the loss, which was one of the hardest of her career, she said.

“It was rough losing that game,” Exley said. “We got down to the last four points and we all just kind of knew it was going to be over. I had tears in my eyes for the last few points just because I knew in my heard that it was going to end.”

Exley, though, is getting another shot.

Lokash offered Exley a spot on the roster and Exley signed her national letter of intent on Tuesday to play for SRU.

“I’m extremely fortunate because Division II was an even higher level than I was ever expecting to go,” Exley said. “I come from a small school and we don’t even start volleyball until the seventh grade. I also don’t play on any formal club teams, so that makes it even more difficult because I don’t have the experience of playing against hard teams from all over the country. I feel like I am a step behind, but I just think it makes me being offered a roster spot so much better because I was able to do that with the hard work I put in.”

Exley put up some pretty impressive numbers in her high school career.

As a senior, she had 244 kills, breaking her own single-season record. She also had 171 service points, 50 aces and 202 digs in her final season.

Exley finished with Keystone career records in kills (638), service points (506) and aces (185).

“A generational talent,” said Keystone coach Bryan Mong of Exley. “She was a kid who would make a fantastic play and then she wouldn’t even show a whole lot of emotion. It was almost like she expected it out of herself and she loved to make the next one.”

Exley, who is also a standout softball player at Keystone, is eager to begin working on bettering herself for volleyball at SRU.

“I definitely want to try and work on my confidence because that is something I lack sometimes,” she said. “I want to continue lifting and getting stronger and work on some agility stiff, because I know I don’t have the best footwork.”

Other than the unfortunate incident with Johnston, Exley will remember the lasting legacy she and her class left at Keystone.

The Panthers played in three straight District 9 Class 2A championship matches, winning one when Exley was a junior. That was the first district title for volleyball team in 29 years.

“I remember when I was little, I would go to some varsity games and I was like, ‘Wow, they’re so good,’” Exley said. “I’ve watched college and even some pro volleyball and I strive to be somewhat like them, to be the best that I could. I know that there are probably some younger girls who are watching me and our volleyball program and thinking the same thing I was when I was little. I think we left some good stuff behind.”

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Redbank Valley, Keystone, and Union/A-C Valley sports coverage on Explore and is brought to you by Heeter Lumber.