A buzz of uncertainty and skepticism swept across volleyball message boards, blog websites and media outlets on August 24, 2007. According to the national critics, the Michigan volleyball husband-wife coaching tandem of Mark and Leisa Rosen was making a mistake.
The subject of such hotly-contested debate: then-freshman setter Lexi Zimmerman.
“On the Internet, all the blogs were, like, ‘What are the Rosens thinking, starting a freshmen? They’re going to hurt her for life because she’s going to be so scared out there,’ ” Lori Zimmerman, Lexi’s mother, reminisced about her daughter’s first collegiate match in front of almost 7,500 fans.
Disregarding her freshman status, current senior Lexi catapulted the Wolverines to a five-set victory, in which she tallied 64 assists and 13 digs in her debut donning the maize and blue.
And the number of doubters and the negative attention the Rosens received for their unprecedented decision, well, that’s all history now, as Zimmerman is on pace to become Michigan’s all-time assist leader in the next two weeks. And according to Rosen, she will graduate “this year being the best all-time player in the history of Michigan.”
Coming to Michigan her freshmen year ranked as the top setter in the country, Zimmerman said she realized within 20 minutes of being in the gym her first preseason day that holding the number one position in a recruiting class meant absolutely nothing.
“I definitely came in knowing I was going to have to work really, really hard to step my game up because the level was so much higher,” Zimmerman said. “And I was still blown away.”
Zimmerman has dedicated a significant amount of her life to volleyball ever since Scott Harris, her club volleyball coach, can remember.
“She was what I call the gym rat,” said Harris, coach of the northern Illinois-based Sky High Volleyball club. “She was in the gym as much as you wanted her to be. She couldn’t get enough of it.”
Harris recognized Zimmerman at an early age as “one of the most athletic and dynamic setters” he had ever seen. From a young age, she proved herself as extremely talented and able to improve at a rate that surpassed most other players.
From the end of middle school to her final season as a Wolverine, Zimmerman has continued to set the precedent for what it means to be the best player in the gym. While it is certainly hard to quantify ‘the best,’ anyone who has been following the Wolverines over the last few seasons can identify the player who has been at the heart of all the success.
To the surprise of no one, the “little, skinny kid” — as Mark Rosen described Zimmerman — has remained among the country’s top setters, leading the nation last year with 1,516 assists.
“The majors for athleticism — speed, agility, hand-eye coordination, balance, explosion — all those things, she’s off the charts,” Rosen said. “She’s got the intangible qualities. She’s a great competitor, she plays great under pressure.
“When’s it’s crunch time, she just finds ways to win,” he continued. “That’s the recipe, that’s what you’re looking for in players.”
Upon arriving at Michigan, Zimmerman had a solid foundation for the art of setting, with a high attention-to-detail mindset but with very little latitude with which to play her position. After quickly identifying her as a “free spirit,” Rosen allowed Zimmerman a little latitude at first. Then, after realizing she could still perform well, allotted her more and more freedom with distributing the ball.
But even with a little latitude, Zimmerman is still learning on the fly to elevate her game. And that all starts with practice.
When it comes to being able to truly dedicate herself to volleyball for the two hours a day when the team practices — as the coaches tell the whole team to do — Lexi does a great job, according junior libero Sloane Donhoff.
“When’s she’s in here for two hours, she’ll go hard for two hours,” Donhoff said. “She’ll come in here and she’s going hard all the time, everyday.”
And for Zimmerman, who admits to being a reaction player — she says she sets the ball without really doing a whole lot of thinking — the time in the gym has proven invaluable. Rosen and the coaching staff have focused on helping her understand why and in what circumstances to make certain decisions.
This has proven to be a relatively easy task, according to Rosen. Despite the fact that the best players are not always the easiest to coach, Rosen says Lexi is “open to ideas and different ways of doing things.”
“I think that’s the thing that will be the best legacy for us, is that not only will she graduate this year being the best all-time player in the history of Michigan, but she’ll also be just one great, fun kid to coach.”
And the school without a chair is…Michigan.
OK, well, almost.
By her sophomore year at Barrington High School in Illinois, Zimmerman had already caught the attention of many other schools — some had even contacted her as early as the eighth grade. But the nation’s top setter of the 2007 recruiting class still hadn’t caught Michigan’s attention.
Enter Stanford University.
As a player on one of Sports Performance’s Under-14 teams — the volleyball club Zimmerman played for prior to switching back to Sky High her sophomore season — she received her first piece of contact from any Division I school.
“Getting letters from coaches, it kind of opened my eyes and made me realize that I could continue with (volleyball), which is awesome because it’s definitely something I love doing,” Zimmerman said. “If there’s someone that wants me to play for them, I’m there.”
Once the letters and questionnaires started arriving on the Zimmermans’ doorstep, the discussion about Lexi possibly pursuing volleyball in the collegiate ranks quickly began.
By the end of Zimmerman’s sophomore year of high school, Rosen said Lexi’s improvement caught his eye. But the Rosens were behind when it came to Lexi’s recruitment. By the time they had begun to recruit Zimmerman, the coaching duo thought it would be too late to get her.
But the Rosens were persistent with the highly-touted Zimmerman and ultimately convinced her to visit Ann Arbor before her junior season in August 2005. Once she arrived, Rosen said, “it was one of those things where you could feel it being the right fit.”
Zimmerman said this past May that she wholeheartedly felt she “needed” to come to Michigan — to a place where maybe winning wasn’t the main objective. She said she wanted to share the same values as the coaches who would be instructing her for the next four years.
So, after not being on Michigan’s radar for too long, and without the usual back-and-forth correspondence of an already-established relationship, Zimmerman had the Wolverines’ attention.
But there was one minor hiccup.
Another setter had the attention of both Rosens long before they had grown keen on acquiring Zimmerman, and they had already offered the other player a scholarship, who had not yet made a decision. But, Rosen said, he liked Lexi better.
Rosen, however, had to be fair to all parties. So, when Lexi asked him what would happen if both she and the other setter told him they wanted to go to Michigan, he told her they would take the other player because “it’s the fair thing to do.”
But that didn’t scare off Lexi. Following her unofficial visit from Ann Arbor, Zimmerman notified Mark that she wanted to be a Wolverine.
“I didn’t realize what I would be missing out on until I went on my visit,” Zimmerman said. “And then I said there was no way I was going anywhere else.”
The other setter was notified about Michigan’s interest in Zimmerman, but she still wasn’t ready to commit, even after a couple month’s deliberation.
The Rosens then offered the position to Zimmerman — boom — game time.
There were about five setters that everyone was recruiting in the Midwest that year and once Lexi committed to Michigan, the rest “decided within the next three days,” Rosen said.
“It was like bam, bam, bam — she got that thing going,” Rosen said. “You just didn’t want to be the team — it’s like musical chairs — you didn’t want to be the team without a chair.”
ALWAYS HAPPY, NEVER SATISFIED
After Zimmerman received treatment on her nagging right thumb — which she injured in mid-October last year at Michigan State — she made her way over to the far end zone of Cliff Keen Arena and fielded a series of questions regarding her three-plus years as a Wolverine.
The writing was on the wall, literally.
Sweet 16. Sweet 16. Elite Eight.
Those are the end results of Zimmerman’s first three years under Rosen, a period of unprecedented success for any Michigan volleyball team in its almost 40 years of existence.
And with all three banners hanging on the concrete wall adjacent to the electronic scoreboard, Zimmerman could see the product of the Wolverines’ diligence during off-season workouts, the adversity they had faced over the course of the season’s four-plus months and their commitment to raising the bar of excellence, when the bar hadn’t even been lifted yet.
None of those wins last season was more impressive and more noteworthy than Michigan’s three-set sweep of No. 4 seed Stanford in the Sweet 16, not to mention the match was played on the Cardinals’ home floor in Palo Alto, Calif.
When Zimmerman answered a question about the significance of the victory — which pushed the Wolverines into the field of eight — she belted out an emphatic “Hell yeah.” With the two-word response, it’s obvious what kind of impact the win had on the progress of the Michigan volleyball program, from where it has come since the start of the Mark Rosen era in 1999, and even spanning a shorter time frame, the Lexi Zimmerman era.
The banners, and what they stand for, have had a big impact on Zimmerman. But they also show her how much further the team could go.
“We’re all happy with the success we’ve had and what we’ve accomplished, but it’s made us realize that if we can raise the bar to become a team that consistently makes it to the Sweet 16, then we can raise the bar again and be a team that goes a little bit farther,” she said. “The better you get, the harder it is to get a little bit better.”
Without former Wolverines like Beth Karpiak (2009) and Megan Bower (2010), Michigan wouldn’t have made its way into national contention, nor would it have garnered the same amount of success in the past three seasons. But looking beyond Karpiak and Bower, only one name comes to mind when considering the greatest influence on Michigan volleyball: two-time AVCA All-American Lexi Zimmerman.
“There’s no question that she’s had the most impact on elevating our program of anybody in the history of the program,” Rosen said.
Before arriving in Ann Arbor in the fall of 2007, Zimmerman was touted as the nation’s No. 1 ranked high school recruit. And now, in her fourth and final year at Michigan with an assist total of 4,916, Zimmerman will soon crush Linnea Mendoza’s all-time assist record of 5,072.
The list of the number of accomplishments she will eventually garner as a Wolverine goes on and on, her most recent being selected as the University’s Female Athlete of the Year. While Zimmerman will probably need another shelf or two at her home in Barrington, Illinois to house all her hardware, the awards and honors aren’t what motivate the outspoken and charismatic Zimmerman.
“We see past that banner there,” said volleyball player Alex Hunt, pointing to Zimmerman’s AVCA All-America second team banner inside Cliff Keen, which she earned her sophomore season. “She doesn’t hang her hat on that being up there. It’s as if that means nothing to her. I mean, I’m sure it does, but it’s not what she lives on everyday.”
So, what does motivate the once Gatorade Player of the Year?
According to Zimmerman, she wanted to seize the opportunity to come to Michigan in order to take a program to where it had never been before, and to finally bring Michigan onto the national stage.
To help bring the program its best season ever, advancing the team to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, was just icing on the cake.
“(Michigan) was knocking on the door of success, and I was really excited to be a part of that,” Zimmerman said. “I had two years to watch it get closer and closer and then when I finally got here, I was like, ‘Put me in.’ I want to make a difference.’ ”