Zoeller uses non-scholarship status as motivation to play better

BY CODY GOODWIN | MAY 01, 2013 5:00 AM

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Michelle Zoeller didn’t originally plan on playing softball in college. She arrived on Iowa’s campus solely for academics her freshman year.

But she couldn’t escape softball entirely. Zoeller missed the sport and decided to try out during her freshman year.

To her surprise, she made the team. She began playing alongside other athletes — some who were on scholarship, and others who weren’t.

That Zoeller wasn’t a scholarship player — she still isn’t to this day — didn’t faze her.

“At the time, I was ecstatic,” she said. “I didn’t really care why I made it. I was just happy to be on the team.”

Iowa softball coach Marla Looper said she originally saw speed in Zoeller and, as time wore on, the head coach saw the grit and resilience in the native of Mequon, Wis.

Zoeller added versatility to the infield when she first played in a Black and Gold uniform. She appeared in 45 games her freshman year and started in 43 of them. Of those 43 starts, 41 were at third base, and the other two were at shortstop.

Looper admitted that it wasn’t always pretty how Zoeller got the job done, but she always found a way to stop the ball.

“She just stops the ball,” Looper said. “As an infielder, that’s your job — to stop the ball and keep it in the dirt. She did exactly that.

“And the rest is history at that point.”

The history Looper spoke of includes a second-team All-Big Ten selection last season for Zoeller, who started just 17 games — 14 as the designated player and three more at third.

A few too many errors, says Looper, kept Zoeller from consistently playing third, but her batting had blossomed to the tune of .346 over the course of the season. That hitting improved during the conference schedule, where Zoeller hit .405 and tallied a slugging percentage of .514.

Zoeller will be the first to say that she’ll do whatever is best for the team, whether that’s playing in the infield, or just entering the lineup to hit. But her open-mindedness stems from the one thing that’s been with her all along: that she isn’t on scholarship.

This allows Zoeller to feel less pressure than an athlete who’s playing at Iowa with that financial aid. She felt when she first made the team that she had something to prove, allowing her to play as if she had nothing to lose.

“I think that has made me enjoy it a little bit more,” she said. “There’s no financial aspect to it. I’m here because I love the game, and I love to play softball.”

That love for the game has been evident on the field, where Zoeller flashes a huge smile each time Iowa takes to any diamond, home or away, for another competition. But it also helps with the diversity of Looper’s squad.

“Sometimes, it brings our scholarship kids back down to earth every once in a while,” Looper said. “They see that there are people here who work just as hard and aren’t getting so-called ‘aid’ to do it … It’s good.”

Zoeller’s play over the past few years might not have attracted an athletics scholarship, but it sure has attracted the respect of her teammates — both with and without scholarships.

“She’s here because she wants to be,” outfielder Ashley Akers said. “Everything that she does, it’s because she wants to do it.”

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