Michelle Zimmerman was getting her kicks in the fall, but she didn't think that should prevent her from having a ball in the spring.
A tennis ball, that is.
Long a tennis enthusiast, Zimmerman never played the sport for the high school team because she had made a commitment to soccer, which plays its season in the fall just like girls tennis. However, the Altoona Area High School junior found a way around that this year by joining the Mountain Lion boys tennis team.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Michelle Zimmerman plays for the Altoona Area High School boys tennis team in the spring.
"It's kind of weird that I play for them, I guess,'' Zimmerman said with a quiet laugh. "I had gone to guys' practices before, so I didn't think it would be all that different, you know, just messing about and playing with them. I thought it would be fun and something different. I really didn't expect all the attention from it.''
It's not all that out of the ordinary for girls to play spring tennis in Pennsylvania - in fact, Lewistown's Lauren Valdivia was a District 6 finalist in recent years. However, that's typically at schools smaller than Altoona that don't offer a separate tennis team for each gender.
In 15 years guiding Altoona, Eric Hovan has never had a girl on his boys team before this spring. He was very well aware of Zimmerman's abilities on the court, though, for years. When Zimmerman expressed interest in playing, Hovan began making calls, going as far as the PIAA to see if it was allowed.
"I sent an email to Melissa Mertz, who is the assistant executive director,'' Hovan said. "She emailed me back to say that she could play, that every student athlete is entitled to one tennis season.
"We've always tried to get her to play on the girls team, but, with soccer, she just couldn't do it.''
The news that a girl was going to be on the team wasn't a big surprise to Zimmerman's new teammates.
"I thought it was cool,'' Altoona boys tennis player Anthony Holliday said. "She's really outgoing, and she likes sports. I thought that she could handle it. She's pretty nice, and everyone knew her from the start, so they were pretty accepting of her being on the team. ... She's actually a really good tennis player.''
Another teammate, Miles Edmiston, was a little more skeptical. He said he thought Zimmerman might just be coming aboard as a manager, but he got his eyes opened quickly.
"She's very competitive,'' Edmiston said. "It's surprising because, when you go up to the boys, they're like, 'Oh, they're going to kill her.' But, when she did the challenge matches, she consistently played up to their level, which is amazing to me.''
Zimmerman, though, has more on-court experience than a lot of her teammates. She's been playing tennis since fifth grade.
"We had family friends like [District 6 Class AA champion] Jared Salyards, and we would go and play with them,'' Zimmerman said. "Then we started going to clinics with [Hollidaysburg High coach] Brian and Amanda Denis.''
When she doesn't have a conflict with her part-time job, Zimmerman practices with the Mountain Lion varsity, and she often hangs around for the junior varsity practices, too. She hasn't played more than exhibition matches yet - it was in the works to get her into an actual dual-meet match recently, but that was nixed because the event was rained out.
"I was nervous,'' Zimmerman said. "I didn't want to let them all down.''
However, being on the team is more than just playing in matches. Zimmerman also has to do things like take long bus rides with a dozen or more teenage boys to away meets.
"Them being guys, obviously I hear some stuff that I don't want to hear,'' Zimmerman said with a laugh. "Other than that, they treat me the same. They're respectful to me. We have fun.''
One other unusual situation is that Zimmerman has been dating her teammate, Edmiston, for almost seven months, well before the season.
Neither of them planned it this way. Edmiston actually decided to join the team for the first time to be around some of his friends. He was unaware that Zimmerman was going to go out for the team, too, and Zimmerman didn't know that her boyfriend had decided to play.
"It's not really all that different. We're not attached at the hip or anything like that,'' Zimmerman said. "We kind of go our own way.''
Sometimes, Edmiston, the novice player, is thankful for that, having played exhibitions as part of a doubles team with his ultra-competitive girlfriend.
"I was pretty tough on him,'' Zimmerman said. "We'd get into stupid little arguments.''
"I try to remind her that this is my first time playing. ... As we went on, we started to have a good time,'' Edmiston said. "Overall, it's been fun, seeing her around all of my friends.''
Zimmerman's plate is full as far as her schedule is concerned. She also likes to snowboard, is an honors student and is a member of the Christian youth group Young Life, in addition to playing soccer and working at Pacific Sun in the Logan Valley Mall.
Despite that, Zimmerman thinks she'll make time for the tennis team again next spring.
"I think I probably will,'' Zimmerman said. "I have a lot of fun with it.''