When Kirstie Hillyer walked off the volleyball court for the final time in a Colorado State University uniform, she knew she wasn’t ready to leave the game.
The 2015 Bayfield High School graduate transitioned from a tough five-set loss to South Carolina in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Dec. 6 in Seattle and began to look to what was next. The 6-foot-6 middle blocker signed Jan. 1 with Hylte/Halmstad, a professional volleyball club based in Hyltebruk, Sweden. She has already reported to the team but has yet to play her first professional match as paperwork is processed. She is looking forward to a chance to contribute to the team the second half of its season.
“I thought about playing pro when I was in high school, but it never really sunk in,” Hillyer said in an email interview with The Durango Herald. “It took me all five years at Colorado State to decide if I actually did want to go pro. I’ve had many injuries and chronic aches and pains that made me rethink it as well as not knowing if this is still my passion to go for. But this is something that I can make into a career, and I thought that the best way to see how it would go is for me to try it. Also, after playing the last ball in the tournament of my senior year, I knew that I was not ready to be done.”
The loss Dec. 6 saw Hillyer complete a college career in which she etched her name into the CSU record book in numerous categories. She was named to the All-Mountain West Conference team all four years of her career and three times made the AVCA All-Pacific North Region team as well as her 2018 selection to the AVCA Honorable Mention All-American team. As a senior, she led the conference in hitting percentage (.411) and ranked third in blocks with 1.34 per set. She is in the top five in Rams history in total blocks, blocks per set and hitting percentage (.369).
In 416 career sets in 119 matches, she had 1,174 kills (2.82 per set) to go with 585 total blocks (1.4 per set). She recorded 1,536.5 total points, or 3.69 per set. She is one of only four players in CSU history with 1,000 kills and 500 blocks.
“I went in knowing that I wanted to put my name in the history books, and then I did,” Hillyer said. “But my most proud moment is the friends that I have made along the way. The record books will last showing the cool things I have accomplished, and those will always be there, but what I will hold most near and dear to my heart is the people and the friendships that I have made. My senior class is unmatchable in every aspect that I can think of, and I am so thankful for each and everyone of those girls. I am most proud of what we accomplished together as a class because we were one of the best groups to ever go through this program or any other program in the nation.”
CSU entered this year’s national tournament ranked 10th in the country. The Rams finished 29-2 and went unbeaten at 18-0 in conference play. During her four years on the court at CSU, Hillyer and the Rams went 102-23 overall and 65-7 in conference play. The Rams went only 1-4 in the NCAA Tournament, with a win Hillyer’s sophomore season against Michigan before a three-set loss to No. 4 Stanford in the second round.
“I will remember the big games like my freshman year whiteout against Texas and big wins like beating Michigan at Stanford in the first round of the tournament,” Hillyer said. But, above all else, I will remember my girls.”
Hillyer got an early taste of international volleyball in 2018 when she made the U.S. Collegiate National Team. Her USA Volleyball squad earned the gold medal in the under-23 division of the 2018 Global Challenge in Croatia.
Now, Hillyer will look to make new memories in Europe. Because the European pro season goes from August until April or May, there were not many opportunities for her to find a team where she would play right away mid-season. She said the contract in Sweden was appealing because it did give her a chance to play right away, and she didn’t want to wait and risk not finding a place to play. She also was excited about the chance to live in Sweden.
Hillyer said she was able to get advice from Casey Kennedy of Cortez. Kennedy, an assistant coach with the Four Corners Volleyball Club, also is a Colorado State alumna and went on to have a successful pro career of her own.
So far, the biggest adjustment has been the language barrier and working on communication with head coach Patryk Fogel of Poland. The time difference between Colorado and Sweden also had made it more difficult for her to keep up correspondence with her friends and parents, Laura and Rich Hillyer. But she has taken solace living in a beautiful city and said she has felt safe exploring and has been welcomed graciously by her new teammates.
On the court, she has already noticed some big differences, though.
“CSU is such a high level of volleyball,” she said. “It’s been different here because I am not on a top-10 team in the nation let alone in this country or the countries surrounding, so the level of play is definitely not what I’m used to.”
During the next few months, Hillyer is open to whatever comes her way. She hopes the upcoming matches and experiences help her determine where to go next.
“I am still trying to find my career goals,” Hillyer said. “A huge goal of mine is to find if this is really what I want to continue to do. It is such a cool experience that I get to come over for half a season and basically test out the waters, and I want to go as far as I can go, of course, so to see if I can play on the highest and best teams. That’s definitely a goal of mine if I want to pursue this as a career further.”