Communication alumna's journey from second base standout to career in the dugout

When Danielle Zymkowitz (BS, ’11, communication) was playing on a travel softball team in California during high school, she and several of her teammates were aggressively recruited by Ohio State. But then Illinois coach Terri Sullivan suddenly showed up close to midnight following a grueling late-night loss.

“I was so tired, but Coach Sullivan was energetic and perky and saying how much she liked watching me play,” recalled Zymkowitz. “I said to my dad, ‘What just happened?’”

Zymkowitz was so impressed by Coach Sullivan’s passion and energy that she chose to play at Illinois, despite an all-out campaign by her California teammates to draw her to Ohio State.

“They put my last name on Ohio State jerseys and put up Buckeye posters,” Zymkowitz said. “But I wanted to step outside my comfort zone a little bit. It was a hard decision, but I’m really glad I went with Illinois.”

Illinois returns the sentiment because Zymkowitz went on to become “arguably the most complete softball athlete to ever wear a Fighting Illini uniform, excelling at the plate, on the bases, and with the glove,” as her description reads in the University of Illinois Athletics Hall of Fame.

Zymkowitz was inducted into the Illinois Hall of Fame in 2022, and for good reason. She holds the Illinois softball record for career batting average (.384), stolen bases (91), runs (202) and hits (277). She is also second in career triples, with 13, and stolen base percentage at .858. Her 2011 batting average of .425 and her 59 runs scored in 2010 are the third best in Illini history, while her 36 stolen bases in 2010 is the school record.

She was also a third-team All-American twice, a first-team All-Region selection three times, and a first-team All-Big Ten player three times. She put up big numbers as the lead-off hitter playing second base, but she was also a spark for the team, serving as captain for three years and never missing a game.

As a child, Zymkowitz never saw this career coming, given her initial reaction to softball. When her father first took her to a 12-and-under softball tryout, she said, “I left crying.”

Danielle Zymkowitz coaching University of Wisconsin softball players
Danielle Zymkowitz now serves as an associate head coach at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Image courtesy of University of Wisconsin Athletics.

However, Zymkowitz stuck with it. “I started getting a little better and then I started falling in love with getting better, and then I started falling in love with the team,” she said.

The next thing she knew, she was practicing from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday. “Then we started doing family vacations with the same people I play travel ball with. Then I’m on the same high school team as these girls. And now they’re family.”

Being small and fast, Zymkowitz was initially drawn to soccer. But she used that speed on the basepaths, as her stolen-base stats make clear. It also enabled her to perform a rare feat in college softball—an in-the-park home run. An Iowa outfielder tried to make a diving catch on her line drive but missed. By the time the Hawkeye player retrieved the ball at the fence, Zymkowitz was rounding third and heading for home.

After graduating from Illinois, Zymkowitz played seven years of professional softball with the Chicago Bandits and fulfilled her dream of appearing on ESPN’s “Web Gem” feature, which highlights spectacular fielding plays. She would play for the Bandits during the summer, while finishing her final semester at Illinois and then getting her master’s degree at Farleigh Dickinson University.

Danielle Zymkowitz giving a speech
Danielle Zymkowitz during her induction into the Illinois Hall of Fame. Image courtesy of University of Illinois Division of Intercollegiate Athletics.

During that final, extra semester at Illinois, she was a student assistant coach, a stint that gave her the coaching bug. Zymkowitz went on to coach at Farleigh Dickinson, which played her younger sister Madison’s team—Long Island University Brooklyn. She also was assistant coach at the University of Toledo, and currently is associate head coach at the University of Wisconsin.

Zymkowitz said she not only chose Illinois for the softball, but for the academics. In high school, she was a scholar athlete three times, so learning has been a priority. She said she put her lessons in speech and conflict-management classes at U of I to good use in her current career as a coach.

To this day, some of her old travel-team friends still say, “I can’t believe you didn’t come to Ohio State. We would’ve gone to the College World Series.”

But Zymkowitz has no regrets. “I loved Coach Sullivan, and I loved my time at Illinois. I put blood, sweat, and tears into the orange and blue for four years.”


Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of The Quadrangle.


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