Colorado State University volleyball came thundering into the Bayfield High School gymnasium Saturday night, and their performance thrilled a capacity crowd cheering for two hometown girls.
Even if the reigning Mountain West Conference champs weren't looking to sharpen their skills on one of their final NCAA-allotted springtime competition dates, their purpose for facing Big Sky Conference member Northern Arizona University inside BHS Gymnasium Saturday night, April 7, was still twofold:
Redshirt-sophomore Kirstie Hillyer and true freshman Maddi Foutz.
Given the hundreds of highway miles between Bayfield and Fort Collins, the odds were that even southwest Colorado's most dedicated volleyball fans had not yet seen the former Wolverine stars shine at the Division I collegiate level.
With the 5'6" Foutz (BHS '17) initially sporting a libero's alternate-color jersey and the 6'6" Hillyer (BHS '15) standing out physically anywhere, they were hard to miss before a crowd estimated to be at least 700 strong. Both wasted little time showing their familiar, albeit improved skills after receiving raucous applause from the fans after receiving inclusion in Coach Tom Hilbert's starting lineup for CSU.
"I actually had goosebumps when that happened, hearing everyone cheering," beamed Foutz, "and it brought back so many memories. I'm just so beyond thankful!"
"It's been three years since I'd stepped foot on this court, in this school," Hillyer said, amazed at the swift passage of time. "So just being able to be back and play a game - let alone a competitive game - in front of the town and people that I love is beyond words!"
Official statistics were not kept, though CSU won the guaranteed four-gamer (a tiebreaking fifth would have been played had the sides played to a 2-2 draw) 25-12, 25-17, 25-18, 16-25 on the scoreboard. Hillyer delivered the match's first jaw-dropping kill shot. She had help offensively from fellow starters Olivia Nicholson, Paulina Hougaard-Jensen, plus Jessica Jackson (redshirt-sophomore, outside hitter) coming off the bench. Breana Runnels, another outside hitter, also impressed the crowd with her powerful hits.
Foutz, meanwhile, was at her best as she sprawled to dig balls from one side of the floor to the other, and actually found herself on serve at game point, 24-17, in Game 2. After NAU failed to score, the Rams went up 2-0 in the match via a Hougaard-Jensen putaway.
The Copenhagen, Denmark, native mashed a kill to end Game 3 and fans, familiar with BHS' all-too-common three-game triumphs within the venue, began approaching players on both sides-either forgetting or unaware that there was still a fourth game coming up.
The Lumberjacks then rode senior libero Jordan Anderson's serving and the hitting of 6'3" junior middle Abby Akin and 6'0" sophomore opposite hitter Heaven Harris to a win, punctuated by junior Abby Stomp's perfect set-dump into the Rams' middle on game point.
"NAU wanted to come back at us; they tried to step it up a bit, we got a little disheveled and it kind of went down from there," admitted Hillyer. "But I think that we still played a good game, kind of showed what we could do, before that last game, so that was really cool."
"They were very consistent throughout all four sets," Foutz said. "And in the end we decided to switch up our lineup, kind of test the waters, and they did a great job of blocking, and keeping their offense rolling.their energy high. Props to them."
"I thought we played well, kept our composure even with the excitement and energy from the hometown. I know we wanted to play well for Kirstie and Maddi, and had fun while we did it," said Nicholson, noting that the visit to rural Colorado included some time for fun, as well. "We went out, rode ATVs and stuff like that, so I think the main goal was to let them have a good time, show us around, but also it's a time to compete, play well and improve, and I think we all did that tonight."
"Some of our goals tonight were to not get too emotional-this is a very exciting place to play-and make sure we stayed grounded in our movements, stay fluid throughout the game," Foutz stated. "I think that you play how you practice. And so even though these are 'spring' games, we wanted to take this seriously and play all-out."
"We have some.very versatile players; no matter when they step in, they can do a great job. And I think that's what makes us really strong at this point," said Hillyer. "So I don't feel like anyone 'stepped up'; I feel like they're already there, and we're already in it as a team."
But Hillyer herself couldn't deny the spiritual lift she got from the experience.
"It just meant a lot, playing in my hometown again," she said. "I usually try to be serious in a game, but...I couldn't help but smile; it was like, 'I'm here, I'm back!' And once everybody started cheering, I felt the love, felt the excitement and energy in the gym, and I couldn't NOT be happy!"
"This game meant so, so much," agreed Foutz. "Like, my whole family was here, and the whole community. People that I've been around with since I was in first grade got to see this! And so it was a really, really special game."