Michael Wexter certainly doesn't want to disrespect New Lenox or the Lincoln-Way area, but it's probably easy for most to accept that his daily views at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, of the Pacific Ocean that's next to the campus are among the best in the nation.
And while that would be a good enough reason for most athletes to want to go there, Wexter was interested in more important matters than just watching the sun set over the Pacific.
Wexter, a senior outside hitter, was one of this area's all-time greatest boys volleyball players while competing for Lincoln-Way West under coaches Rory Harrison and Brian Thorpe in the program's early years. The 2015 West graduate is still his school's career assists, aces and kills leader, and the season record-holder in aces, assists and blocks. He was a Herald-News Player of the Year and a first-team all-stater as a senior and a second-team pick as a junior.
Those accomplishments, along with playing for Erin Lorenz's great Ultimate Volleyball Club for eight seasons and leading their U14 team in 2010 to the USAV championship and two others to fifth-place showings, helped him to draw the attention of one of his sport's greatest coaches, Marv Dunphy, an International Volleyball Hall of Fame inductee who won four NCAA titles and is recognized by the association as having 523 victories in 34 seasons. He also was a longtime coach with the United States National team.
But the school hadn't won a title since 2005, and other national finals appearances were stripped from them over the next few years. So during Wexter's first two years in Malibu, the Waves only went 23-23, and Dunphy retired in 2017. His longtime assistant David Hunt took over in 2018, and after his first team went 15-8, Wexter and his teammates built on that success to help the school finally return to the NCAA finals this season.
Pepperdine, which is ranked third nationally, is 22-6 after sweeping fifth-ranked USC in the MPSF Tournament finals in Malibu to go 14-0 at home. It will meet Princeton on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. Pacific time in the NCAA Championships, which will be played in Long Beach, California.
They own their longest winning streak of the season at seven matches and hope to advance against the second-ranked hosts in the semifinals May 2. Lewis faces USC in the earlier quarterfinal match at 5 p.m., with the winner meeting top seed Hawaii, also May 2. The championship match will be May 4.
"It's still surreal every time that I come back here after going home," Wexter said. "I definitely had great guidance in both high school while I was playing at Lincoln-Way West and then being in the club and playing for Ultimate.
"The last time that we went to the NCAA tournament was in 2008. But volleyball is growing really fast, and it's great to have all of these great coaches in your generation. And volleyball is crazy now, since in Division III, there's about 100 programs."
The Waves have a solid group of hitters in David Wieczorek, Kaleb Denmark and Wexter, all of whom have between 289 and 391 kills, thanks to the efforts of setter Robert Mullahey, who has handed out 1,027 assists, while Kevin Vaz leads with 101 combined blocks. Wieczorek leads with 42 aces.
Wexter led Pepperdine in digs with 204 and ranks second on the the team with 361 kills, 30 behind Wieczorek. He also has a .355 hitting percentage to go along with 33 aces, which is second on the team to Wieczorek and he was in on 61 blocks, which ranked third-best on the Waves. Both Wexter and Wieczorek, who are both from the Chicago area, made the MPSF all-tournament team.
"It's kind of surreal to have played here," Wexter said. "It was always my dream team – to go to Pepperdine and to be in Malibu by the water. And playing for Marv Dunphy and David Hunt has been great. Pepperdine is a good community and there's no other school like it, in my opinion, where they want you to be happy, and they talk to you and then want to be part of your life, and that's great.
"I'm majoring in sports administration. And right now, I want to play professionally overseas, and from everyone that I've talked to, I really want to go to Italy, but I could see me myself back in California when it's all over."