CSU a tall order for a 6-5 sophomore

Steve Lewis/Durango Herald file photo

As soon as head coach Tom Hilbert and the Colorado State University volleyball program had their chance, they took a hands-on approach in signing Bayfield High School sophomore Kirstie Hillyer. The 6-5 Hillyer blossomed on the volleyball court this season, then bloomed at last weekend’s state tournament in Denver. College coaches everywhere noticed. She gave her verbal commitment to CSU.

By Dale Strode Herald staff writer

Just like taking a quick set in the middle of the net for an uncontested kill, Bayfield’s Kirstie Hillyer saw an early opportunity, and she took it.

Hillyer, the 6-5 sophomore for the Bayfield High School state-tournament volleyball team, made an early verbal commitment to Colorado State University this week – the week seniors can sign their official national letters of intent to play at the next level.

“It’s a great opportunity ... a huge relief,” said Hillyer, who has an older brother playing basketball in junior college and a dad who ranks top-10 in all-time scoring for the Fort Lewis College men’s basketball program. “Now I don’t have all that stress of going through all the recruiting.”

A dominating sophomore season, including breakout performances at regionals and on the opening day of the 2012 CHSAA Class 3A State Volleyball Championships in Denver, pushed Hillyer’s recruiting interest through the roof of late.

But Hillyer, who had taken a family visit to CSU and Fort Collins earlier this season, already had been a priority for the Rams and head coach Tom Hilbert. CSU assistant coach Brook Coulter flew down to watch Hillyer and the Wolverines win regionals two weeks ago.

Then, the CSU staff invited the entire Wolverines’ team to visit Moby Arena and the CSU campus for last week’s match against the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. BHS was on the Front Range for the state tournament.

“When we ... went up and watched them play, you could tell they were all really a part of the team,” said Hillyer, daughter of Laura and Rich Hillyer. “They were all having fun.”

Hilbert saw his opportunity, extending an early offer to Hillyer. Her official signing day will have to wait until 2014.

“I know that it’s a good fit for her,” BHS volleyball coach Kelley Rifilato said, with a nod to the university’s well-reputed veterinary program. “She really likes the college. She’s interested in vet (veterinary) school. I think she’s happy to have ... made the decision. And I know Tom (Hilbert) is ecstatic.”

Rifilato said Hillyer’s steady improvement over the last year when she grew to 6-5 was evident.

“Kirstie has taken her play to the next level. On Friday (at the state tournament), she played like a Division I player,” Rifilato said. “She’s really a special kid.”

Hillyer’s performance at the Denver Coliseum sent NCAA Division I and Division II coaching staffs scrambling to find Rifilato’s telephone number.

One Division I head coach tracked down Rifilato at a Starbucks Coffee Company in downtown Denver in an effort to learn more about Hillyer, who comes from a family with tall athletic roots.

Hillyer’s older brother Derek, 6-9, is a freshman playing basketball at Otero Junior College. Her dad, Rich, also 6-9, posted a Hall of Fame basketball career as one of the best players ever at FLC.

Kirstie Hillyer and the Wolverines just finished a 23-4 season with another trip to state, Hillyer’s second and the fourth in a row for BHS volleyball.

Hillyer said she is fortunate because her high school volleyball coach shares a special passion for the game with her players.

“She (coach Rifilato) wants her players to become better,” Hillyer said. “She’s always pushing us to get better, to go further.”

After two more seasons at BHS, Hillyer’s game will go further and farther – eventually to CSU and Fort Collins.

“I know they have a very good animal sciences program,” Hillyer said.

And a Division I school of veterinary medicine. And a Division I school of volleyball.

dstrode@durangoherald.com

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