While much of the sporting world focused upon France following their triumph in the 2018 FIFA World Cup's conclusion on Sunday, Bayfield High School alumna Kirstie Hillyer was returning from the runner-ups' homeland with a gold medal in hand.
Competing for the fourth time in Europe, the current Colorado State University standout middle suited up for Bring It Promotions' 14th annual Global Challenge in Pula, Croatia, as part of the U.S. Women's College National Team, helping the crew conquer the Under-23 'Brijuni' Division.
Joined by CSU setter Katie Oleksak, Hillyer and the CNT defeated, ironically, the Mountain West Conference All-Stars 25-16, 25-23, 25-19 on Friday, July 13, to complete a 6-1 run through the event.
"It was such a cool experience," Hillyer said Tuesday. "In the past, when I was in high school I went to the same Global Challenge, and then when I was a freshman in college I also did the Global Challenge, and after going through both of those - I'd placed third place, I'd placed second - when I found out I'd made this team I just couldn't be more excited."
"I finally had the chance to win that first-place - gold, and there it was! Super exciting for me."
Defeated by only the locals (Croatia Select prevailed 29-27, 27-25, 25-17) on the 11th during the group-play phase, the CNT beat teams from Hungary (Hungary Select), the Czech Republic (PVK Olymp Praha), Italy (BFTM Falconara Juniors) and England (Northumbria University) en route to topping the USA Teams Group points table.
The national team won in four games (25-20, 24-26, 25-14, 25-19) over Northumbria in one semifinal. Then Hillyer & Co. found themselves battling familiar faces in the grand finale after the MWC All-Stars won 17-25, 25-13, 25-22, 15-25, 15-11 over Croatia Select in the other July 12 semi-final. The Mountain West team included not only CSU's Breana Runnels, but also Fresno State outside hitter and Aztec High School graduate Aubrey Folk.
"When I was in high school we played club (Four Corners Volleyball) together, so through that process she became one of my best friends," Hillyer said of Folk. "And we stay in touch to this day!"
"So when I found out she was going to be on that team, I couldn't have been more excited. So while we were over there we definitely found places to meet up, catch up in person. It was really cool that we could do that for our country, having grown up in the same area."
The Croats swept Northumbria 20-25, 25-18, 15-10 in the third-place contest.
The Challenge's opening ceremonies took place July 9, with the CNT looking to repeat the 2017 team's U-23 championship win over the MWC All-Stars.
The team was coached by Louisville's Dani Busboom Kelly with California Baptist's Branden Higa and DePaul's Marie Zidek as her assistants. This year's College National Team also included two players from Kentucky, two from Washington State, and one each from Oregon, Utah, Iowa State, Louisville, Wisconsin and Stanford.
One player from each of the Brijuni's ten squads was named to the All-Tournament Team, with Runnels chosen from the MWC All-Stars and August Raskie (setter, Oregon) from the CNT.
BIG ON BRAINS: Monday, July 16, it was announced by the American Volleyball Coaches Association that Colorado State was among 164 NCAA Division I teams receiving the AVCA Team Academic Award for the 2017-18 season.
Also honored from the MWC were New Mexico, Nevada-Las Vegas, Utah State and Wyoming. All teams receiving the award were required to maintain a cumulative 3.3+ grade-point average on a 4.0 scale (or 4.1+ on a 5.0 scale).
"Can't be more proud of my team," said Hillyer, reached while catching up on homework herself after returning to the States.
"It's a super-great honor. College has been more of a challenge for me than high school, but these last couple semesters I've definitely pulled up my average. Ready for that success in the classroom as well!"