Washougal volleyball player is team’s ’emotional pillar’

Senior Lexi Melton blossoms into MVP, helps pull team through tragedy, coaching turmoil

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Washougal senior Lexi Melton (10) celebrates with teammates during a match against Hudson's Bay on Oct. 14, 2021. (Doug Flanagan/Post-Record)

At the start of the Washougal High School volleyball team’s 2021 campaign, Lexi Melton was unsure about the role she would be asked to play by Juno Cruz, the team’s third head coach in the past four years. But she asked a lot of questions and never shied away from opportunities to take on new challenges.

During a game early in the season, Cruz sent Melton in to serve and then immediately brought her back to the bench after her task was complete. Melton approached Cruz after the match and asked: “Am I just a serving specialist now?”

“Because I promise I’ll work harder to prove I can contribute more,” Melton added.

“And let me tell you, she’s proven herself,” Cruz said. “As this year has progressed, she has become so strong-minded and has found a very confident voice on and off the court, which has helped her teammates respect and follow her leadership. Coaching Lexi has been awesome. With this being her senior year, I believe she wants to make it her best one yet.”

Melton, a senior defensive specialist, has blossomed into one of the Panthers’ most valued leaders and “emotional pillars” during an emotionally trying season thanks to her outgoing personality, which she says also comes in handy at her job as a cashier at Washougal Hardware.

“(I try) to be encouraging to the passers around me,” she said. “As a captain and defensive specialist, I think it’s important to encourage those around me because when the energy on the court is off, everything’s off. The plays don’t go right and you get stuck in a rut. I think keeping the energy up and being encouraging is something I really need to focus on as a passer.”

Melton is playing with a heavy heart this month. One of her close friends, Washougal High School senior Zain Justis, died Sept. 29, after a multiple-year battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“That was a lot to go through,” Melton said, “but I think, honestly, it’s pushed me to try to become better and do everything that I’m doing on the court and off the court for him because I know that he’s watching me. I think (his death) impacted the whole community because he knew so many people, and so many people knew about him and the road he was on and what he was going through.”

Melton had known Justis since they were preschoolers, but said she didn’t become close to him until their freshman year, when he began dating her best friend, Amy. Justis and Amy (Benson) married four days before his death.

“Zain was such a good friend to people,” Melton said. “He was always there for you. He knew how to put you in a good mood if he could see that you weren’t in a good one. He was a great friend and great boyfriend. I just loved that kid, honestly, and I miss him.”

Zain’s young wife, Amy Justis, a senior opposite hitter, is taking a leave of absence from the team, but Melton is hopeful her best friend will return for the Panthers’ final home match of the season and be recognized during senior night festivities.

In the meantime, Melton is wearing Amy’s No. 10 jersey as a tribute to her best friend.

“With Amy losing her loved one, there have been so many emotions that none of these athletes should be experiencing this year,” Cruz said, “but here they are, being there for one another, and Lexi is for sure an emotional pillar for many of the players on the team.”

Melton played soccer for nine years before trying out for the Jemtegaard Middle School volleyball squad when she was in the seventh grade.

“I didn’t love soccer as much as I used to, and once I got into seventh grade, I was like, ‘I’ll try out for volleyball,’ because a couple of my friends were doing it, and it’s something I pretty much stuck with ever since,” Melton said. “I really love how it’s not just an individual sport and how it takes everybody on the court to make it happen. The moments where you’re all working together — somebody passes (the ball), there’s a really good set and someone slams the ball on the other side of the court — are really rewarding. (It’s great) to see that happen and see everything come together, and something that I really like about the sport.”

Melton has been a member of the Washougal-based River Warriors Volleyball Club for the past five years, although she didn’t participate in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She plans to join the club for its 2022 campaign this spring.

Kim Poen, the mother of Washogual High senior outside hitter Anna Poen, coaches the River Warriors.

“All of us girls that have been on the River Warriors and know Kim … see her as a second mom just because that’s just how she is,” Melton said. “She’s encouraging to all of us. She’ll get on us, but in a motherly way. We know it’s because she wants us to do better and knows that we can do better. She’s changed the game for me. She’s at all of our high school games as well ,because of Anna, so she’s always helping us.”

Kim Poen said she “can’t speak highly enough about Lexi.”

“She’s an excellent student-athlete who is dedicated to her team and teammates, even in the very toughest times that have challenged us all over the last 18 months,” Poen said. “Lexi is willing to do the hard work a player needs to do to improve not only herself, but others as well. I’ve seen Lexi support her friends on and off the court in ways not typical to a high school student. Lexi truly is one of a kind, and I am so blessed to have been her coach.”

Melton, who is taking classes through Clark College’s Running Start program, doesn’t know what she wants to do after graduating, but is considering a career as a registered nurse.

“I’ve always kind of wanted to do something in the medical field, but my parents think it’s funny because I want to do two totally different things — either something in the medical field or cut hair,” said Melton, who is also considering applying to Boise State University’s nursing school. “My parents are like, ‘Those don’t really match at all.'”

For now, Melton is trying to help lead the Panthers to a district tournament berth. After defeating Hudson’s Bay 3-0 on Oct. 14, Washougal sports a 4-7 record and sits in sixth place in the 2A Greater St. Helens League.

“I think, compared to the last four years, it’s the best season,” Melton said. “Going through three coaches in four years, each of them kind of wants you to do things a certain way, so I feel like our whole program has been pulled in every direction. I think that once Juno spends a couple years here, we’ll start getting on track and start putting Washougal volleyball on the map.”