Kirstie Hillyer vividly remembers the last of her 1,174 kills as a Colorado State University volleyball player. It was five years in the making.
“Ever since my redshirt year as a freshman, coach Tom (Hilbert) always wanted me to work on tip-ins to my right side over the block,” she said. “I always worked on that every practice, but I had only ever done it once, maybe, in a game. But he drilled it into me over and over and over again. But, my very last point scored for CSU, it was a tip-in right over the block to the right side. It wasn’t a very showy kill, but it was one of the most exciting points I ever had. I finally did it.”
Hillyer, a 2015 graduate of Bayfield High School, did everything she could on the volleyball court for more than a decade. She took her career to the greatest heights, and she pushed her 6-foot-6 body just as far.
After her first few months of professional volleyball in Sweden, the 23-year-old returned home to Bayfield when the COVID-19 pandemic brought an early end to the season. Between her surgically repaired knees and shoulder and the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus, she decided to officially retire in July instead of pursuing another year in the pros.
“I can’t say enough about the opportunities volleyball has given me since middle school,” she said. “I’ve been to eight or nine countries, met amazing people and had wonderful experiences. I spent my life chasing the sport because I loved the competitive atmosphere, and I am nothing but grateful for that.
“My parents raised me to be an athlete, and I was able to accomplish so much in that.”
Hillyer, the daughter of Laura and Rich Hillyer, grew up with sports. Her father was a star on the Fort Lewis College men’s basketball team from 1985 to 1989, as he led the team to its first two conference championships in program history.
When Hillyer discovered she was more passionate about volleyball than basketball as a 5-foot-7 middle school student, her parents were fully on board. It helped lead her on a path from the small town of Bayfield, with a population less than 3,000, to NCAA Division I and the pro level in Europe.
“We’ve been so extremely proud of her and blessed by the experience,” Rich said. “She has a competitive drive. In some respects, you either have it or you don’t. She got it, and she ran with it. It was exciting to be part of it and watch her grow through all of it. It was a lot of fun for all of us. I just can’t believe it’s come to an end already, and I don’t think she can either.”
Hillyer quickly was a star at Bayfield High School. Laura and Rich told their daughter not to expect to make varsity as a freshman, but head coach Kelley Rifilato had other ideas. That belief from the head coach filled Hillyer with confidence, and she would go on to earn four All-Intermountain League First Team selections as well as all-state honors her junior and senior year.
The Wolverines would go a perfect 36-0 in league matches and reach the Class 3A state tournament every year Hillyer wore the purple and gold. She was named to the 2014 Under Armour Honorable Mention All-America team as well as the 2014 MaxPreps Small Schools All-American Girls Volleyball Team. On top of all the accolades, Hillyer was a National Honor Society student.
She verbally committed to Colorado State as a sophomore in high school. She signed her senior year and reported to Fort Collins, but she arrived with knee and shoulder injuries that would require a redshirt season for her to rest and heal.
But when she was once again ready to play in 2016, the entire Mountain West Conference took notice. She led the conference and ranked fourth in the nation in blocks, as she had the most of any freshman in the country.
By the time she had played her final match against South Carolina in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Dec. 6, 2019 in Seattle, Hillyer’s name was all over the CSU record books. She is in the top five in Rams history in total blocks, blocks per set and hitting percentage. She is one of only four players in CSU history with 1,000 kills and 500 blocks.
She was named to the All-Mountain West Conference team all four years. She made the AVCA All-Pacific North Region team three times and earned a 2018 selection to the AVCA Honorable Mention All-American team.
In 416 career sets in 119 matches, she had 1,174 kills to go with 585 total blocks.
“She was probably the most physically dominant player in the middle that we’ve ever had,” CSU head coach Tom Hilbert said. “She was just a force for people to deal with, and it changed the way people played us. That’s really what you want is a player on your team people have to game plan for. She was just impossible to stop at times.
“I first saw her when she was in eighth grade. By her junior year in high school, she wasn’t just tall anymore. She was doing great things athletically and had a really great arm swing. It became evident she was going to become special. By her second year at CSU, she was already a signature player.”
Hillyer got her first chance to play in Europe as a junior in high school at the European Global Challenge. She knew then she might want to return to play professionally.
At the start of 2020 after she graduated CSU in December, Hillyer signed with Hylte/Halmstad volleyball club based in Hyltebruk, Sweden. She played in only a handful of games before the season was canceled because of the pandemic, but she was still named the Swedish League’s best spiker.
She arrived at the same time as Texas Tech’s Emily Hill, and the two Americans made an immediate impact on the team. Hillyer believes they would have won the league if the season continued.
“I had no idea what to expect in Europe,” Hillyer said. “The volleyball wasn’t super competitive over there, but I loved the town and the culture. I only got to play in three or four games before COVID hit and I was sent home, though.
“I was thinking about going back over there, but the pay was not great, and the whole situation was such an unknown because of COVID. All the teams are funded by sponsors, and with the economy crashing the way it is, people don’t have extra money to give to athletics. The pro teams I was looking at, they were starter-up teams. I had to make the decision if I wanted to go and practice and play and put my body through all of that again for an eight-month season. I got to try it out for a couple of months, but I decided I didn’t want to spend my time chasing the competition level of what I experienced in college. I was afraid I’d never find it again.”
Hilbert said there was no doubt Hillyer could have reached the highest levels of competition in Europe. But the climb is tough, especially for an American player. It requires years at lower levels making less money to work up to a team that offers big money, he said.
“If she were to commit four or five years over there, she might be able to make a good wage, but it’s hard to do,” Hilbert said. “You really have to fend for yourself. Sports medicine is not very good in those leagues, and you have to be very durable. A lot of people would rather get on with their life, and you can’t blame them for doing that.”
Hillyer started to work at the family business, Southwest Ag, Inc, this summer, and Rich said she has done very well. She has an apartment in Bayfield and is excited about what is next after volleyball.
Plus, she has been able to reunite with her dog she had to leave behind when she went to Europe.
“I got Buck when I was in college. He’s been through a lot with me,” she said. “I couldn’t leave him again.”
Hillyer is a beloved figure in Bayfield and Fort Collins.
Fans at CSU would erupt with every kill and block, as she routinely brought Moby Arena, with a capacity crowd of 8,745, to a frenzy on the volleyball-crazed campus.
“My first game as a redshirt freshman, we played Texas in a whiteout,” Hillyer recalled. “The atmosphere was crazy, and it was the biggest crowds we ever had in history. We took it to Texas. Every year, we had more and more fans. Those fans were unmatchable, and that’s one big reason why I went to CSU. I knew the community support was way beyond what you could think of having. It was beyond a blessing.”
Hillyer said fans would regularly come up to her in the grocery store. She welcomed the experience.
“The thing I thought was most special about her, she had an incredible confidence and charisma at 6-foot-6,” Hilbert said. “A lot of people, a lot of women at that age are somewhat self conscious because people are staring at them all the time. Kirstie wore it like a badge of honor. I always admired that about her. She’s a special person and really enjoys being tall and owns it. That’s different. A lot of the kids we coach are not like that.
“She’s a very engaging person, a great teammate and a really great personality. The fans loved her and the kids loved her. I always admired that about her.”
Maddi Foutz was teammates with Hillyer for two years in high school and another two years at CSU. She called playing with Hillyer an incredible experience.
“She is such a great leader, fierce competitor, and she expects great things out of herself and her teammates,” Foutz said. “That is how she always made it to the next level.”
For almost anyone in Bayfield, the best memory of Hillyer came when CSU visited the BHS gymnasium for a spring exhibition game against Northern Arizona in 2018. Hillyer and Foutz showed their hometown how far they had progressed as players and people and delivered an electric night of NCAA volleyball to the town.
The team spent the weekend in Bayfield, and Rich got to see the leader his daughter had become beyond the court.
“The whole team talked about that trip for years after,” Hillyer said. “I feel like the team got to understand me so much more. I was a country girl from the middle of nowhere, and Maddi and I got to play in our hometown and let them see where we grew up. Being able to play for the home crowd again, it was amazing. I think people were shocked to see how much we had changed and grew.”
Success for Hillyer came with scars.
Her senior year of high school, she tore the labrum in her right shoulder. Two weeks before shoulder surgery, she partially tore her left knee in three places. She would be in a full leg brace with crutches and in a sling all at the same time.
She wore a brace her first two years in college to support the damaged knee. She worked tirelessly to gain enough strength to shed the brace, and finally she did. But the second week of her redshirt sophomore season, she tore it again in a match against No. 15 Florida State, a match the Rams won 3-0.
“I was supposed to miss two months, at least, but I came back in four weeks,” Hillyer said. “I was not having being out of the game. My trainer said it was one of the quickest recoveries they had ever seen. But, since then, I’ve had continuous knee issues, and I’ve never been out of the brace. I’ll be in the knee brace the rest of my life.”
Going into her senior season, Hillyer was again having right shoulder pain. Doctors thought a bone spur had developed, and surgery was planned. But it turned out a screw was loose from her first shoulder surgery. Every time she swung her arm to hit a volleyball, it was screw hitting against bone.
“Once we figured that out, it was good. I rehabbed quickly,” she said. “I give it all to my genetics. I’m a fast healer, I guess.”
Hillyer also had torn the labrum in her left shoulder, but she opted not to get surgery.
“Left arm, who needs that?” she joked. “All the injuries, the sprained ankles, hurt hips and the surgeries, it’s a huge reason I’m not going back. It’s hard when the body is falling apart. My trainer said I won’t be able to walk by the time I’m 40. I decided that was a big deal.”
The tenacity to play through pain was another signal of Hillyer’s competitive spirit. Her father knows what it is like, and he marveled at her strength.
“Division I, they push you so hard,” Rich said. “Her body, she’s going to have scars on her shoulder and knee that will be with her the rest of her life. They push hard, and the body has a hard time playing at that level and not breaking down. Playing through pain was hard for her, and there were times she questioned it, but she loved being a competitor more than she let the pain bother her.”
While there was a price to being a dominant player, Hillyer said she would do it all over again. She left the game with no regrets.
“It’s a cheesy line, ‘Everything happens for a reason.’ I haven’t been out of the game that long, but it’s true,” she said. “I was able to experience so many things, and I wouldn’t change anything about it. I am the person I am now because of what I went through and the people I was with. Volleyball gave me so much. Maybe make it a little further in the NCAA tournament my senior year, but that’s maybe the only thing I would change.”
Hillyer is happy to have time back with her family, camping with her parents and her brother, Derek. She realized this summer she hadn’t gone camping with her family since middle school. Every weekend for more than a decade was spent on volleyball. For her parents, that was just fine.
“We won’t know what to do this fall,” Rich said. “We always saved our vacation time to travel to her games. Now what?”
Hillyer thought back on looking into the crowd at Moby Arena and seeing her parents at almost every home game. It was a nearly 800-mile roundtrip each time. She said she could count on her hands how many games they missed her entire college career.
“It’s hard to beat what I got,” she said. “My parents, grandparents, my brother, they supported me so much, and I appreciate them more than they can know. I am going to miss the competitive aspect of volleyball, but I am going to enjoy being home now.”
Perhaps the biggest question left to be answered is where Hillyer will channel her competitive drive next.
“I was always a super competitive individual,” she said. “If I see one other player who is better than me, I want to beat them and show them my whole team can beat them. That’s the big thing I will miss. When I play my best game, I know I can beat the best of the best. I’ll fight for everything.”