Clayton Zimmerman didn’t really feel he had a choice when his big sister Jaela dragged him into the family’s backyard to smack a volleyball around.
There weren’t many obstacles, other than an old, wooden playground they never used and a hyper dachshund they’d hook to the fence.
But after varying periods of time, the inevitable always happened: Jaela would get frustrated that her brother wasn’t trying, or Clayton would get upset that she was hitting the ball too hard.
“I’m never playing with you again!” one — or sometimes both — of them would scream, as they headed off to separate parts of the house.
Then, like clockwork, 15 minutes later, one of them would approach the other and ask, “Do you want to play again?”
Then they’d head right back into the backyard.
Jaela, who is 1 1/2 years older than Clayton, pictured her future in volleyball. She shined on the thriving girls volleyball club circuit, as well as at Malcolm Senior High School just outside Lincoln, Nebraska. She committed to Creighton University in May 2016 as she wrapped up a stellar prep career that included being a two-time High School All-American by PrepVolleyball.com and Nebraska’s Gatorade Player of the Year.
In her second year at Creighton, Jaela started all 26 matches, and she’s second on her team with 259 kills for a 22-4 Jays.
Clayton’s path toward his passion? Well, that’s a bit more complicated.
Still a Stigma
Clayton played basketball, basketball and also competed in swimming.
But his sister stoked a passion in volleyball, a sport he liked because of the constant challenge and the camaraderie of being on a team.
“No matter how much work you put in,” Clayton says, “you can’t really say, ‘I’m perfect at this.’ Sometimes, it gets overly frustrating. But there’s always stuff for you and the team to work on.”
But the only real volleyball Clayton could participate in was a scaled-down co-ed league that competed in some local tournaments.
As volleyball has exploded in popularity, it is girls who have powered that growth, which is why it’s largely perceived as one of the few “girls” sports. According to the National Federation of High School Associations, only 22 states even recognize high school boys volleyball as an official sport.
And while 1,860 colleges offer women’s volleyball scholarships, including 354 Division I programs, just 343 colleges offer men’s volleyball scholarships, including just 40 Division I schools.
“Even today, I’ll be getting my hair cut and someone will be like, ‘What sports will you play?’ Clayton says. I’m still hesitant to say because the reaction is like, ‘That’s a girls sport.’ ”
Nancy and Greg MacLean started the High Flyers club in Nebraska, and they started to transition away from putting together girls teams and focusing on boys teams. Their reasoning was multi-faceted but an interest from their son was a driving force.
Unlike girls, though, boys who play were hard to find.
They’d struggle to get number, yet Greg’s coaching and Nancy’s ability to manage the program helped High Flyers, well, fly high. They’d head to nationals and excel at big qualifiers, sometimes with a roster of just six or seven players.
“We’d get teams with five or six deep, and they’d look at us and think they would dominate us,” Greg says. “But it didn’t go that way.”
And due to other sports and commitments, Greg could only manage one three-hour practice a week. The reason? Those handful of boys were coming from all over the state.
Consider how they found Clayton. One of the High Flyer players saw him play and reached out to him via Instagram.
“I play for High Flyers, and I noticed you’re good,” the player wrote to Clayton.
Clayton, though, had a daunting transition, from playing with some junior-high girls to 18-year-old boys virtually overnight. He also was playing “up,” since he was just 15 years old.
“That was a bit of a jump,” Clayton says.
High Flyers has reached the Boys Junior National Championships in 10 of the last 11 years, rather remarkable since the MacLeans are powering the growth of their club without as many resources as other clubs.
Maximizing His Potential
Clayton, who is 6 foot 1 and 175 pounds, is a go-getter, someone who rallies his teammates and plays with focus. He isn’t shy about speaking in the huddle.
“In a match, when there’s a critical moment, Clayton always has something to say,” Greg says. “As a coach, I always appreciate that because, believe it or not, the coach is the last one that should be talking. The players should know what they need to do.”
Daniel Mader is the Associate Director of JVA member club VCNebraska, and he’s coached Clayton over the years.
“Anyone in the gym for the past few years couldn’t have helped notice the young guy in rec specs sliding across the floor diving for every ball,” Mader says. “He stands out as an athlete that loves the game and will find any opportunity to learn and play, even if it means training in a gym of 80 girls and being the only guy.”
Mader adds that Clayton’s work ethic is “unique,” and insists the young man is a model student-athlete.
“There aren’t many opportunities in Nebraska to get noticed, but everyone in the volleyball community here admires him not just for his passion for the game but also his character off the court,” Mader says. “I’m extremely proud of the work Clayton has put in to get to the next level.”
Mader, in fact, helped Clayton get on Belmont Abbey College’s radar. Eventually, coach Nolan Albrecht offered Clayton a scholarship to play for his men’s volleyball team.
“It still hasn’t hit me, that I’ve been working for that goal for four years, and it’s finally coming true,” Clayton says. “It’s exciting to see my hard work finally, finally paying off.”
Clayton is grateful to Mader and the MacLeans for the role they’ve all played in helping him develop and advance in his volleyball career.
“Without them,” he says, “there’s no way I could have played in college.”
About the Author
This article is written by Sean Jensen from SportsEngine, the official technology partner of the JVA. SportEngine offers special pricing and packages exclusive to JVA member clubs. More than just a website, SportsEngine can help you solve serious challenges you face with tryouts, billing and collections, team communication, tournaments, and more.
Sean was born in South Korea, but he was raised in California, Massachusetts and Virginia, mostly on or near military bases. Given his unique background, he’s always been drawn to storytelling, a skill he developed at Northwestern University and crafted for the last 16 years, almost exclusively covering the NFL. He’s earned distinctions from the Illinois Associated Press, Minnesota Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists, Pro Football Writers of America and Associated Press Sports Editors. In 2006, he received a special achievement award from the St. Paul Pioneer Press. In 2014, along with BroadStreet Publishing, he created The Middle School Rules children’s book series, which tells the inspirational childhood stories of famous athletes such as Brian Urlacher, Charles Tillman, Skylar Diggins, Jamaal Charles and Vontae Davis. Sean is also a frequent speaker. He lives in a Minneapolis suburb with his wife, two children and dog.