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Life After Lexi: Michigan bids adieu to one of its best players ever

Jed Moch/Daily
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BY HEIKO YANG
Daily Sports Writer
Published December 9, 2010

The legend begins in 2007. The Michigan volleyball team has just completed its first week of practice when Stesha Selsky walks into coach Mark Rosen’s office.

“Mark, I want to work on passing,” Selsky tells her coach, as he recalls it.

Though Selsky has played the libero position earlier in her college career, the senior is set to reprise her role as a veteran setter who had led the Wolverines to a 21-13 record and a spot in the NCAA Tournament the previous year.

“Why do you want to work on passing?” Rosen asks her, bemused.

Selsky smiles. “Really, Mark? You know why I want to work on passing.

“I want to be libero because she’s better than I am.”

“She” is Lexi Zimmerman, a scrappy freshman from Barrington, Ill. who has been recruited out of high school as the best setter in the nation. She and Selsky have been competing in practice to see who would get the starting job for the season opener against No. 10 Hawaii at the ASICS Invitational Tournament.

The competition is supposed to be a formality, at least for the time being. Whereas Selsky is a senior, a veteran, and a solid setter, Zimmerman is wide-eyed and untested at the college level ⎯ an unknown. It would be a huge risk to start a freshman against a team that has “future national champs” on their t-shirts, in an arena full of 7,000 hostile fans.

So when Zimmerman earns the starting nod after the first week of practice, eyebrows are raised.

“Our seniors … didn’t feel like we were making the right decision,” Rosen recalls. “They were worried about having this freshman set and whether she would be ready.”

But Michigan goes on to upset the Rainbow Wahine 3-2, and Zimmerman is awarded All-Tournament honors. The doubt vanishes quickly.

“After the tournament they were like, ‘Gee, good decision. Nice job, coach,’ ” Rosen says.

Four seasons later, Rosen can appreciate how well that decision turned out. Zimmerman has since written herself indelibly into the record books and into the annals of Wolverine lore. A three-time (soon to be four-time) All-American. Michigan female athlete of the year. Back-to-back triple doubles. Program leader in single-season assists (as a freshman). Program leader in career assists (by a lot). The list goes on and on.

For the past four years, it hasn’t been difficult to spot the best player on Michigan's team. She wears number 17, and whether she is contorting in mid-air to set or lunging in the backcourt to dig, she has become as much a fixture in Cliff Keen Arena as the pep band, the intermission challenges, and “point... MICH-igan!”

***

For the first time since anyone on the team can remember, the Wolverines will begin spring practice in 2011 without No. 17 at the net. And junior outside hitter Alex Hunt isn’t quite sure what to expect.

“It’s definitely going to be a different experience playing without her next year,” Hunt says. “I don’t know Michigan volleyball without Lexi.”

With Zimmerman’s departure, rising junior Catherine Yager and incoming freshman Lexi Dannemiller ⎯ arriving in the fall ⎯ will compete for the vacated position. Fortunately for them, the team understands that Zimmerman is a unique talent, so they’re not expected to replicate her role in the offense.

“I like the idea that they’re very different style setters from Lexi,” Rosen says, “and that will eliminate some of the comparisons. They’re going to put their own stamp on the way they run the team.”

According to Hunt, Zimmerman is a rare “attacking setter,” one who is always a threat to hit, forcing the opposing team to defend her. This provides more opportunities for the hitters, and Michigan’s hitters will be the first to say that they’ve enjoyed the benefits of having Lexi on their team.

“It’s definitely an advantage for me as an outside hitter because Lexi holds the blocks and it opens things up for me,” Hunt says.

Although both Yager and Dannemiller are traditional setters who focus on distributing the ball, Rosen isn’t worried about losing the strategic advantage of having an attacking setter.

“They’re less flashy, they’re less offensively minded,” he says. “They’re more steady and rhythmic. They tend to put their hitters in really good positions, and that’s how they allow their hitters to be successful.”

Though she has never started, Yager has seen action in a handful of games during the past two seasons. Her most significant contribution came during spring practice when Zimmerman was out with an injured wrist. Rosen is particularly excited about seeing Yager in more extensive action, noting that, while her style of play may not be eyecatching, the results speak for themselves.

“She’s not flashy, she’s not super fast,” he says, “but whether it’s her high school team or her club team or even last spring, her teams just always seem to win. And that’s ultimately what the goal is.”

Yager acknowledges that she has her own style, but that hasn’t kept her from getting tips from Zimmerman in practice. The veteran often gives her advice on how to improve her technique. Yager says she’s grateful for the mentorship, and she feels up to the challenge of filling Zimmerman’s shoes.

“It’s a great opportunity for me,” she says. “The past two years ⎯ especially the past year ⎯ I’ve really watched her on the court and off the court and how she’s led the team.

"I want to follow in her footsteps and be something great like her.”

***

The next chapter in the Zimmerman saga will begin when she commences a winter training program with the national team in Anaheim, Calif. She’ll finish her degree in the fall, she says, and then she’ll likely join a professional team in Europe or Puerto Rico where she can travel the world, explore different cultures, sample exotic foods and play the sport that she loves for “as long as (her) body can hold up.”

But nothing is set in stone.

Always striving for balance in life and never one to sacrifice academics for athletics, Zimmerman hopes also to go to graduate school for architecture, another passion she has cultivated while at Michigan ⎯ she’s a Program in the Environment major with a concentration in architecture.

And then there's the allure of playing with the national team in the Olympics. Zimmerman is quick to minimalize her chances of going down that path, but not for lack of confidence or ability.

“I have the utmost respect for (Olympians) and what they devote their time to,” she says. “But I’m not sure it’s what I want to devote my time to because you have to make a lot of sacrifices to get a little bit better. I value balance more in my life than I value putting everything that I have into going to the Olympics. I totally understand it being a valuable path for other people, but I don’t think it’s my path at this point.”

Rosen shares Zimmerman’s feelings, adding that the immense amount of training compared with a relatively small amount of actual competition is another turnoff. The national team trains year round but participates in only one major competition a year, not to mention that the Olympic games occur just once every four years.

“I think she’s a person who has a lot more interests than just volleyball,” he says. "It seems like the training cycle of a four-year continuum, and the type of mentality it takes to go into that type of setting ⎯ I don’t know how well it will fit her. It will be good for her to go there this winter and get a feel for it.”

Zimmerman will spend four months training with national team coaches and assistants along with a handful of the most talented seniors in the country. With an Olympic year looming in 2012, it is unlikely that any of them will remain on the team for this cycle. But on the off chance that she does eventually decide to pursue a spot on the national team for 2016, however, Zimmerman has a positive outlook.

“I’m the type of person where, wherever I am, I’m going to be happy," she says.

***

This is where the legend comes to an end ⎯ the Michigan part of it, anyway. Though Zimmerman’s legacy on the court and in the record books will not soon be forgotten, she says her greatest moment as a Wolverine wasn’t when she broke any records or beat any teams or won any awards. In fact, her greatest Michigan moment didn’t even happen during the season.

“I think my greatest Michigan moment was preseason this year when I had a chance to be a captain and lead the team and establish a culture I’ve been trying to establish since I’ve been in the program,” Zimmerman says. “I wanted to prioritize building team chemistry and being good teammates."

It was also during the preseason when the coaching staff picked out their 2010 mantra.

“Commitment to the unknown.”

Designed to inspire faith in the young players, the phrase serves as a poetic bookend to the Lexi Zimmerman era. Her freshman and senior seasons each began with their own unknowns, but each ended with clarity. Could she handle the responsibility of directing a college offense as a freshman? Yes. Would a team full of inexperienced players contend with some of the best teams in the country and finish with one of the best overall records of any Michigan team? Yes.

Once again, Zimmerman and the young Wolverine team she leaves behind will face a fresh set of unknowns. But this time, there is one thing that everybody knows for sure.

No. 17 will be sorely missed.