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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.