“She is carrying us like a quarterback for a football team, a shooting point guard for a basketball team, a pitcher for a softball team. She can change the game.” – University of Michigan coach Mark Rosen
Michigan volleyball coach Mark Rosen didn’t know the closeness of the record, but his two-time All American senior setter had been constantly reminded about the approaching feat.
For Rosen, it wasn’t until a day before Lexi Zimmerman was on pace to break Linnea Mendoza’s all-time program assists record of 5,072 (held since 1997) that he realized its relative proximity.
On Sept. 24, Zimmerman finally eclipsed Mendoza’s mark with 36 assists as the Wolverines hosted Iowa inside Cliff Keen Arena. The 2006-2007 Gatorade Player of the Year from Barrington High School in Barrington, Ill., currently holds the number one spot in the record books with 5,555 assists as of press time, and with a quick glance toward the future, it looks as if she could retain that position for quite some time—she even has the possibility to crush the mark by upwards of 1,000 assists.
Yet, without a stellar back row digging a ball and outside hitters finding holes in opposing defense’s block, she would have no record to her name at all, as she explained a few weeks after reaching the mark.
“Any record you get in volleyball, unless it’s service aces, is directly based on your teammates working their butts off to put you in a position to break that record,” she said. “Records are awesome, they’re exciting and they’re a great honor, but it’s not why we play the game.”
But Zimmerman almost didn’t even make her way to Ann Arbor to have the opportunity to reach such an accomplishment. Before wearing the block M, she received letter after letter from every top Division I program in the country besides the school located in Ann Arbor. Stanford initially contacted Zimmerman, and with the first letter came many more, each one hoping to grab the nation’s top-rated setter.
However, once Rosen saw Zimmerman’s improvement following her sophomore year of high school, he finally persuaded her to visit the University. Within minutes of Zimmerman setting foot on campus, Rosen said he knew it was “the right fit” for Michigan and Zimmerman.
The “tall, skinny kid” as Rosen sometimes describes her, wanted to lead a program into waters never before traveled by Michigan. According to Zimmerman, she saw the up-and-coming program that was “knocking on the door of success.”
Five-plus years after her first visit and it’s clear what Zimmerman has accomplished for Michigan volleyball—and for herself. She’s taken a team that wasn’t even mentioned among the nation’s elite to a school that had its best program finish in 2009, advancing to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.
And with the loss of three integral seniors who all started last season—Megan Bower, Veronica Rood and Juliana Paz—Rosen brought in four true freshmen and one redshirt freshmen to fill the void in 2010.
To say the makeup of the team had changed would be an understatement, but over halfway through this season, Michigan has its best program start with an 20-4 (9-3 in the Big Ten) overall record as of Nov. 2.
What does Rosen attribute the historical start to? Easy.
“Two words, and that is Lexi Zimmerman,” he said, following Michigan’s four-set victory over Michigan State on Oct. 13. “She is carrying us like a quarterback for a football team, a shooting point guard for a basketball team, a pitcher for a softball team. She can change the game.”
Or even a program, for that matter.
Since Zimmerman has been a Wolverine, Michigan has garnered more success than at any other point in its almost 40-year history.
Two Sweet 16 appearances. One Elite Eight.
With the program obtaining more wins, advancing further in the NCAA Tournament and receiving the country’s respect, one player has stood at the heart of all that success, and that is 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 this past May.
And while it’s clearly evident how much Zimmerman has impacted Michigan, from the two AVCA All-American banners hanging inside Cliff Keen along with the 2009 Michigan Female Athlete of the Year award, it’s also very transparent the quality of players she is.
Fellow junior outside hitter Alex Hunt maybe said it best when she said that she and her teammates “see past” all of the accolades Lexi has won over the past few seasons. She further elaborated on how Zimmerman is one hundred percent focused on “winning for Michigan.”
“I just love playing volleyball,” Zimmerman said. “I mean, it’s nice at the end of the day to look back and see a record of what you’ve done, but I just love the game.”
With that kind of love-of-the-game mentality, Zimmerman has distinguished herself once again at the collegiate level, which isn’t surprising to anyone associated with Michigan volleyball, as she’ll graduate next spring as the “best all-time player in the history of Michigan,” according to Rosen.
As Zimmerman will soon graduate, Rosen will lose, arguably, the face of the program. Despite the eventual need for another setter dictating the offense, the Michigan volleyball program is certainly in a better place. According to Zimmerman, one of the lasting legacies she wanted to install at Michigan was to leave the program better than when she arrived in 2007, which she has certainly accomplished.
“She’s a good person, so you’re going to miss that,” Rosen said. “Certainly we are going to miss her game, no question there. And it’s going to be one of those things where you don’t know how much you miss it until you don’t have it.”
Originally published in January 2011