One of Bayfield’s biggest stars reached another new height this week.
Kirstie Hillyer, a 2015 graduate of Bayfield High School, was selected to the U.S. Collegiate National Team for the Minneapolis program to be held in June. USA Volleyball named the team Monday a month after intense tryouts March 3-5 in Colorado Springs at the United States Olympic Training Center. Hillyer, who plays for the Colorado State University Rams, competed alongside more than 280 collegiate players at the tryouts and was selected as one of 31 players for the national team.
“I wasn’t super nervous, but once I was on the court and saw players from Florida, Texas, Stanford, the nerves kicked in a bit,” said the 6-foot-6 Hillyer in a phone interview with The Durango Herald. “But I knew I could play with them, and so I did my best.”
The tryout was fast-paced, Hillyer said. Players rotated at a frantic pace, and she worked with a new setter each time she was on the floor. Having setters adjust to her 6-foot-6 frame can be difficult, but she performed each time she touched the ball.
“It was chaotic, I’m not going to lie,” she said. “We all split into different groups, and they had us play as fast as we could. It was a whole lot of volleyball, sun up to sun down for three days. It was a great experience and a lot of touches on the ball.”
Hillyer wasn’t sold on her own performance after the tryout. She told her parents, Laura and Rich Hillyer, that she had performed only alright.
“She said she didn’t think she played that great,” Laura Hillyer said. “I don’t think she felt all that comfortable, but the results show she was more comfortable than she realized.”
Hillyer has proved she can comfortably play alongside the best. After sitting out her true freshman season in 2015, her CSU team reached the national tournament in 2016, and she finished fourth in the nation with 1.59 blocks per set, which was the best mark for any freshman in the country. The Rams ranked second in the nation in blocks behind national champion Stanford.
Hillyer also boasted an impressive .327 hitting percentage and led the Rams with 3.57 points per set and 2.5 kills.
Before the national tournament, she was named the Mountain West Conference Newcomer of the Year after her redshirt freshman season. She also earned AVCA All-Pacific North Region Honorable Mention honors.
Hillyer is the fourth CSU Ram ever to be selected for the U.S. Collegiate National Team, which formerly was called the U.S. National A2 team.
“It means a whole lot,” she said. “I’m the youngest from CSU to do this. Knowing that from the past and knowing I’m representing our program like this is super exciting.”
After taking a month off in the winter, Hillyer was right back in the gym at Fort Collins and said she played five to six hours per day in the spring. Her CSU team will travel to play in Europe in two weeks against national teams and other clubs.
“Spring season is one of our toughest seasons, so I was ready for the tryout,” Hillyer said.
Rich Hillyer, who was a star basketball player at Fort Lewis College and ranks second in the career blocked shots category for the Skyhawks, said he is happy to see his daughter carry on the family’s strong athletic tradition. He knows the rigors of playing college sports and the physical toll it can take on a player’s body. He’s proud of how Kirstie has handled the pressure and commitment.
“You worry about moments of burnout, but at the same time she doesn’t want to stop,” he said. “She pushes all year. Coaches see her potential, even for her at the USA level. She’s become a lot stronger, faster and is always getting a lot better. She’s come along way and taken it to a whole different level.”
Laura Hillyer said she never imagined Kirstie playing at such a high level. She remembers being shocked when former Bayfield High School head coach and current Fort Lewis College head coach Kelley Rifilato gave Kirstie a varsity spot as a high school freshman. When Laura and Rich showed up for the first game and saw Kirstie starting, they couldn’t believe it. Her senior season, Hillyer was named to the Under Armour Honorable Mention All-America team, a remarkable accomplishment for a player coming out of the small town of Bayfield.
“Full kudos to Kelley for what she saw in Kirstie,” Laura said. “That was our first inkling that maybe she’s got something here. From there, she worked really hard and was driven. She is her own worst critic and always pushes to get better and better.”
When Hillyer first arrived at Colorado State, she wasn’t satisfied with her blocking ability in practice. Head coach Tom Hilbert and assistant coach Luke Murray pushed her to improve in that area, and it led to the top blocking performance by any player in the nation in her first season on the floor.
Hillyer is the only player from Colorado to be selected for this year’s Minneapolis program. The team will train June 22-26 at the University of Minnesota. Following the training, the players will be split into three 12-member teams and play in a round-robin tournament June 27-30 at the Minneapolis Convention Center the same days as the USA Volleyball Girls’ Junior National Championships.
“Going in, I’m wanting to show them what I have and play my best,” Hillyer said. “I want to show the players and coaches how well I can play and get as many good touches as I can.”