Lexi Erwin is quirky.
A senior and co-captain on the Michigan volleyball team, she spends most of her nights before bed absorbed in thoughts about what her life will be like in 10 years. Her imagination spirals into fantasies about playing professionally in Europe or South America, or touring the United States as an urban planner. Her biggest fear is divorce, despite the fact that her parents are still together and her insistence that she’s far removed from marriage herself. She has her heart set on traveling to Greece because the main character in “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” goes to Greece, and Erwin hopes to go everywhere the movie character went.
Erwin is a spaz. She says so herself. She’s deathly afraid of public speaking, and any attempt at saving face is belied by her flushed cheeks. “It’s not like the ‘cute’ blush,” she says. “It’s like the ‘I’m a tomato.’ ”
Her favorite quote is “The people who love to eat are always the best people,” by Julia Child, American chef and TV personality. In fact, Erwin considers a hidden talent of hers eating whatever her parents put on her plate when she was younger. She giggles, embarrassed. “I guess it’s not really a talent,” she says. “I’m not very cool.”
Erwin is gritty. The summer before her sophomore year of high school, she was on a jet ski for the first time. One of her friends suggested they drive fast and Erwin agreed. Shortly after picking up speed, her legs flew out and she fell off the back, hitting her head on the corner of the jet ski and breaking 11 bones in her face. She received 150 stitches above her eyebrow. Somehow, she wasn’t concussed, and, miraculously, after colliding with the jet ski, she impacted the water so hard that the bones went back into place and prevented her from requiring plastic surgery.
Had Erwin’s head been turned a little more, doctors said, the jet ski would have hit her spine and she likely would not have survived. She tells this story candidly and with a hint of excitement.
“I think it’s a really cool thing,” she says. When asked if she’s a badass, she doesn’t hesitate. “Yeah,” she deadpans. “Just a little.”
Individually, Erwin’s attributes are as bizarre as they sound. They are a hodgepodge of seemingly random and unrelated traits, but collectively, they shape the background of a bona fide star who’s been doing things her own way since she first picked up a volleyball.
And her transformation from an inconsistent, unproductive sophomore back-row player to one of the nation’s most lethal offensive weapons is one of the most remarkable Michigan coach Mark Rosen has ever seen. With one final season in Ann Arbor, Erwin, idiosyncrasies and all, aims to forever etch her name into the annals of Michigan volleyball.
Spring, Texas is a town of roughly 50,000 people located 30 minutes due north of downtown Houston. The Erwins have called Spring home for the past 16 years after Lexi’s father, Blane, uprooted his family from Boston. Blane, who had been working grueling hours for IBM, was raised to be a family man and decided to take a pay cut in order to spend more time with his wife and three daughters. A job opened in Texas, and he jumped at the opportunity.
Lexi found volleyball at a young age and quickly climbed the Texas ranks. She made the second team for her club when she was 12, and as her dedication to the game increased, she became a highly touted high-school prospect. Erwin — whose parents are both 6-foot-1— sprouted four inches from 5-foot-9 to 6-foot-1 between her freshman and sophomore years of high school.
When she was 15, Erwin watched Stanford play for the first time and had her heart set on playing for the Cardinal. Her coach told her she might be good enough to play there and that she could be recruited. A lightbulb went off, and her desire to play at the collegiate level intensified.
Erwin ponders not having played volleyball, where she might have ended up without it.
“I’d probably be in a hick [college] town in Texas with my entire high school,” Erwin says, laughing, attempting to cover her mouth as her “tomato face” sets in. “That sounds so bad. I needed volleyball to get out of there.”
Michigan was not originally on Erwin’s college list because she didn’t want to attend a school where it snowed. Then one day, she received a personalized recruiting letter from the Wolverines’ staff — a section of a puzzle that said, “You’re the missing piece” with her name on it.
“I thought it was so cool, and no one had ever sent me something like that,” Erwin said. “I had to visit.”
In January of her junior year of high school, Erwin visited Ann Arbor and fell in love. She initially had her heart set on Long Beach State, but Rosen had given Erwin tickets to a Michigan hockey game and she was sold. Erwin was not No. 1 on Michigan’s target list, though, and it wasn’t until another recruit fell through that Erwin was able to commit.
The transition from the south to progressive Ann Arbor was more drastic than Erwin had expected. She enrolled in a “Religion, Politics and Power” class her freshman year, and, coming from a conservative and Christian atmosphere back home in Texas, she was shellshocked by the class discussions.
“It was the first time I’d ever heard of people really believing in evolution or people believing in other religions and actually sharing their opinions,” Erwin says. “I remember calling my mom and saying, ‘They said this in class, I can’t believe it.’ ”
The leap from high school to college athletics wasn’t easy either. Erwin started just two matches during her freshman season, and as a sophomore she was in and out of the front row. The coaches were concerned she wasn’t physically capable or consistent enough to play at the net in front of the Big Ten elite. She struggled, additionally, through a self-described rebellious phase and often clashed with coaches and other authority figures.
That spring, eager for a change, Erwin approached Rosen and told him she wanted to be one of the best outside hitters in the country.
“We felt that Lexi had a really high top end but was underdeveloped and overlooked,” Rosen said. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a player that has transformed herself as much as she has.”
The lights are bright at Cliff Keen Arena, and Erwin is struggling. No. 10 Michigan is hosting Maryland in the Michigan Invitational, and Erwin is out of sync. The timing on her jumps is off, her kill attempts ineffective. One of her shots is blocked easily and drops on Michigan’s side for a Terrapins point.
Erwin huddles with her teammates and is not upset. In fact, she’s smiling, almost laughing. She shakes her head, brushing off another missed opportunity. Teammate and junior setter Lexi Dannemiller gives Erwin a slight nod, indicating she will be looking to send the next ball in Erwin’s direction. Dannemiller does, and Erwin fires an attempt cross-court that knifes through two Maryland players for a Michigan point.
Erwin, a 2012 honorable mention All-American and 2013 preseason All-Big Ten selection, is immensely talented. Her poor play that evening is uncharacteristic but fixable, something she has been striving toward for nearly two years.
Erwin has been seeing Michigan’s sports psychologist, Greg Harden, every other week since her sophomore year. Harden suggested Erwin write down all of the characteristics of the person she aspired to be when she ultimately left Michigan — a great volleyball player, but a better teammate, friend, and person.
While her off-the-court goals are in a constant state of improvement, Harden has also helped Erwin shake her frustration on the court. Gone are the days of her brash and rigid volleyball personality. She plays with a rare looseness and thrives in — and needs, really — a relaxing, fun vibe.
Erwin and her teammates often joke in the gym that playing volleyball is akin to the childhood game of keeping a balloon off the floor.
“We’re basically a bunch of 20-year-olds acting like we’re 5 again,” Erwin says.
When Erwin finally allowed her play on the court to mirror her character off it, things clicked. She drove that mentality to the tune of a school-record 614 kills last season while pacing Michigan to its first-ever Final Four appearance.
When the Wolverines entered the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Ky., last December, days ahead of their Final Four matchup with Texas, ESPN reporters swarmed the players. There were interviews and photo shoots — publicity rarely granted to non-revenue student athletes. The venue, home to Louisville basketball, seats 22,000 people, nearly 11 times the size of Cliff Keen Arena.
All of a sudden, Erwin was thrust into the spotlight. One thousand people showed up to watch her practice. The attention consumed her, and anxiety reared its ugly head. Her same free approach that had led Michigan to that point, that had remained a constant when seemingly nothing else did that season, evaporated into a stoic, robotic-like effort which left Erwin uncomfortable and out of rhythm.
The effects carried over from practice to the beginning of the Wolverines’ match with the Longhorns, as Texas took the first set 25-12. Erwin retreated to the bench, with her familiar goofy smile reappearing, seemingly unfazed by the beating Texas had just delivered in the biggest match in Michigan volleyball history.
“We were laughing,” Erwin recalled. “We just got whooped, so badly. Someone made the comment that we made every single mistake you can make in a volleyball game so we might as well grow a pair and just play.”
Erwin thought of her conversations with Harden and relaxed. She settled in and nearly sparked an upset over the eventual national champion Longhorns. Despite falling to Texas 3-2 and ending their magical run, the Wolverines rebounded, led by Erwin’s 26 kills on a school-record 87 attack attempts. She responded, smile and all, and in an oddly poetic way, Erwin’s performance reflected her ascent from Rosen’s doghouse to All-Tournament accolades.
“She’s one of my all-time success stories in terms of someone I’m really proud of,” Rosen says.
Nine months have passed since Michigan’s appearance in the Final Four, since the first time Erwin has — by her own admission — really felt like a talented volleyball player. She’s learned to handle pressure better than she ever thought she could. The attention that comes with being great no longer corners her. She used to “black out” and not know what to do. Now, she’s the one teammates turn to, and laugh with, in pivotal moments.
After a recent practice, Erwin’s thoughts stray off again like they do before bed. She rambles on, seemingly to no one in particular, about the Kardashians and one of their latest exploits. She pauses, then chuckles, awkwardly. In a way, her off-beat remark is a sign she’s enjoying herself. But in a truer sense, it’s simply Erwin being Erwin, whoever she is.