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News / Sports / Prep Sports

Skyview’s Jaxson Filler continues building up confidence after severe knee injury

After missing junior year, senior big man returns to help the Storm chase down 4A GSHL boys basketball title

By Will Denner, Columbian staff writer
Published: February 3, 2024, 6:05am
3 Photos
Skyview senior Jaxson Filler is introduced Jan. 23, 2024, before a game against Camas at Camas High School.
Skyview senior Jaxson Filler is introduced Jan. 23, 2024, before a game against Camas at Camas High School. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

To illustrate just how fleeting high school basketball can be, Skyview coach Matt Gruhler uses senior big man Jaxson Filler as a teaching example for the rest of the team.

Filler had just wrapped up his sophomore year in June 2022 when his basketball career came to a sudden halt. While playing with Skyview in a summer league game against Kelso at Lower Columbia College, Filler went up to block a shot and upon landing on one leg, he tore his ACL, MCL and meniscus in his right knee.

“It was bad,” Filler said. “I was shocked because I didn’t know what to do. My leg was, like, locked. … It was a weird feeling for me because I’ve never experienced that before.”

Basketball was — and still is — a big part of Filler’s life. Then it was taken from him, just as he was entering an important stretch to continue building his game, and it demanded a lot of work to come back.

“This is a gift … basketball can be gone in a minute and things can be gone in a minute,” said Gruhler, Skyview’s head coach since 2013.

“Now, it’s something where I can point to a player that they all know and love and (say), ‘look … an injury can happen, and all of a sudden, a lot changes in your life. So don’t just rest on your laurels (and) think I’ve got all this time. … While you’re here, give everything you have for your teammates.’ You can tell that impacted our seniors and a lot of our returners.”

The good news for Filler and the Storm: the 6-foot-7 post has since returned to the court after a long journey to a full recovery — nearly 10 months from the injury to being cleared in April 2023. This season, the senior continues to gain confidence as a valuable contributor on a team with aspirations of winning a 4A Greater St. Helens League title and making a deep playoff run.

“I just had to trust myself in order to get back on the court, because I felt like I could’ve re-injured my leg again and that was scary,” Filler said. “Now I feel like I’m 100 percent confident. No issues. I feel so good with my legs. I have no worries.”

Filler first made an impression on Skyview coaches attending the team’s summer camps in elementary school. Even then, as one of the taller kids for his age, Gruhler said he could see Filler’s potential and willingness to work.

As a freshman, he swung between Skyview’s JV and varsity teams, then earned a full-time varsity starting role in his sophomore season. Looking back on that time now, he acknowledges the experience was overwhelming at times.

“It was a lot for me to handle,” Filler said, “because there were bigger guys and I had to face them.”

The ensuing summer leading into his junior season was shaping up to be a formative time for him on the court, until the injury.

Filler had surgery three weeks after tearing his ACL, MCL and meniscus, then began the arduous rehab process consisting of physical therapy, hyperbaric oxygen therapy and weight lifting.

“That helped me a ton. I also gained a lot of weight in the process, which was beneficial for me because I needed to pack on a few pounds,” he said. “But it was a slow process, because I had to learn how to walk again. That was difficult for me.”

Filler missed all of his junior season, but Gruhler was proud of how strong his connection remained with the program and his teammates. Save for scheduling conflicts with his physical therapy, Filler was present for most practices and games.

“(He) showed players in our program what dedication looked like,” Gruhler said.

When he first returned in April 2023, Filler played in spurts while getting back up to speed and feeling out his knee post-injury.

The beginning of the summer was a process for him to find his place on Skyview’s team, Gruhler said, but the end of it, culminating in a trip to Gonzaga’s team camp, Filler was drawing rave reviews from opposing coaches.

“I think he had to work through the confidence of who he is as a person,” Gruhler said. “He’d been such a basketball-focused young man growing up ever since he’d been coming to (team) camp in second grade. It was like, you love basketball, you want to be around it … and then that thing is taken away from you for a full year. You’re coming off COVID and all the things that these young people had to go through. You had, for him, a reality check of, ‘who am I? And does basketball define me?’

“When we saw him in June to just kind of see the growth, we could tell it was slow. Then by the end of summer, he had some really big games for us.”

In part because of Filler’s return this season, Skyview has one of its most experienced teams in recent memory. Both Filler and Demaree Collins, Skyview’s leading scorer, started as sophomores. Combined with returning starters Malakai Weimer, Gavin Perdue, Gavin Packer and Javen Fletch, the Storm essentially have six starters, Gruhler said.

With Filler, the Storm have much-needed size and length they lacked last season, a big body who takes up space in the paint to bolster the Storm’s defense and rebounding. He’s also polished his offensive game, which he credits to working with his dad, Jason Filler, and adding a 3-point shot. The luxury for the Storm, though, is they can turn to a number of different players to score.

“My role, I think, is, I set good screens, I dominate the paint, offense and defense, and I get my teammates open, because every one of us is a great scorer,” he said. “I don’t necessarily have to score a lot of points in order for us to win games.”

And on the topic of winning, the Storm have won seven of their last eight games, including two key 4A GSHL victories against Camas and Battle Ground earlier this week. That puts Skyview in position to grab at least a share of the league title with one regular season game left, Tuesday at Union.

Filler and the Storm hope their recent success translates to a postseason run and trip to the 4A state tournament in Tacoma, where Skyview last played in 2020. As a senior, Filler is grateful to be part of it all after working his way back from that fateful injury.

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“To me, it feels good to be back,” Filler said. “I feel like I connected more with my teammates this senior year … and that’s a big part of my life. I want to feel a connection between them.

“I feel like we’re on the road to winning league and going to state, so that feels good.”