By Zachary Schuster for VolleyballMag.com
MADISON, Wisconsin — With stops in 11 cities in less than a month, the 2023 Athletes Unlimited exhibition tour has likely felt like a bit of a whirlwind for the pro players.
“We basically had a week of preseason training,” Sydney Hilley said, “and then it was like, ‘All right, go play the best collegiate teams in the country.’
“It’s been fun competing with some of the top colleges and seeing all the fans who are so loyal to their college teams.”
And that especially was the case last Wednesday when Hilley returned to the UW Field House, back for the first time since her team’s victory over Minnesota that propelled the Badgers to the national semifinals and on to winning the 2021 NCAA championship.
With Hilley’s return getting heavy billing, it was only fitting that fans were lined up outside the Field House for four hours on a blustery Madison spring day to get prime seats for the free match between Wisconsin and the pros.
“I think a 10,” Hilley said. “I knew the Field House would give me a warm welcome because we have the best fans in the country. But even during warm-ups when I came out, they were already going nuts and cheering for me.”
Wearing the light blue of the AU team instead of her customary red and white, Hilley, a VolleyballMag.com first-team All-American in 2021, dished out 38 assists and wemt on multiple serving runs to lead her team to a 3-1 win.
“It brought back a lot of emotions because of how many times I’ve played there, and the fans have been great my entire career,” she said. “It was unreal. It was weird not wearing a Wisconsin jersey, but it was still super fun.”
Danielle Hart, Lauren Barnes and Tiffany Clark were among Hilley’s former teammates in attendance.
“The alums, they love coming back,” Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield said. “They’re huge Sydney Hilley fans, as all of us are, so I think they were excited to see her play.
“I had to turn around and give a death glare to a few of them after Sydney turned and threw a ball down and they were all screaming. I turned around, and they were like, ‘Sorry Coach.’ ”
Sheffield said that one of the goals of the Wisconsin coaching staff is to provide an experience in the program that compels alums to return to campus, and
“I think a lot of the players who come through here want to leave the program better than when they walked into it,” Sheffield said. “As an athlete, when you can look back at the end of your career and you’re saying, yes, I helped elevate the program.”
Hilley said for her, that dynamic has played out perfectly.
“It was good to see them and get some pictures with them after. It’s weird because you spend so much of your life with them, and then it’s so different afterwards,” Hilley said. “The bonds you make when you’re a part of a program like that are life-long. No matter if you play with them for one year or for five, they’re going to be your best friends throughout your entire life.”
There was at least one more giant Sydney Hilley fan in the Field House last Wednesday who was probably the most conflicted of them all.
Hilley and current Badger setter Izzy Ashburn go way back, all the way to their upbringing in the suburbs north of Minneapolis. Hilley was two years ahead of Ashburn, but they got the opportunity to play together at Champlin Park High School and then again at Wiscconsin. Hilley played a huge role in Ashburn’s development during those years the two spent together.
“She’s always kind of taken me under her wing, especially as a setter,” Ashburn said. “We did a lot of our work together in high school. She would help coach me through things and kind of mentored me. We never really lost that relationship. I never thought I would come to a school like this, so when I got to commit and get two more years with her, I was really excited for my big sister to be around again.”
And for the first time on opposite sides of the net.
“It was honestly really weird,” Hilley admitted. “We would look at each other during the game and give each other a little smile. Obviously you normally don’t do that to your opponents, but we had so many memories and we’ve worked together for so long, it’s hard not to be buddies on the court. I’m just so proud of what she’s done, and I am going to continue to be one of her biggest fans.”
In addtion to the stop in Madison, the exhibitions at the club qualifiers have been a highlight for Hilley. Players and parents at the Windy City Qualifier in Chicago, for example, crowded five deep around a court to watch Athlete Unlimited play a split-squad exhibition. After, Hilley and her teammates spent close to a half hour signing autographs.
“It’s exactly what I did when I was younger. I had these huge role models, and I would have been first in line trying to get their autographs and watching them play,” Hilley said. “Doing these kind of events where we get to interact with the youth and they get to watch us play, I think it’s good to be that role model for them who’s playing professional volleyball. But also it’s a chance to help grow the game in the U.S.”
Athletes Unlimited has played some of the top teams in the country, also making stops at Texas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Louisville and Ohio State, with the matches taking on either a competitive format or a format that mixed the rosters, depending on the availability of players
Wisconsin returns nearly its entire roster from a team that came up two points short of a fourth consecutive appearance in the national semifinals, so the Hilley-led AU team was in for a legit contest.
Hilley helped lead the Badgers to the NCAA Tournament round of eight in her sophomore year, and then, beginning in 2019, Wisconsin won three straight Big Ten championships. Wisconsin lost in the 2019 NCAA title match to Stanford, lost in the 2020 semifinals to Texas, and then won it all in 2021 for the first time in program history by winning a dramatic, gripping five-set match against Nebraska.
It culminated a run that started in 2013 when Wisconsin and freshman setter Lauren Carlini made it to the NCAA final.
“I would give most if not all of the credit to the people who were before us,” Hilley said. “Carlini, Haleigh Nelson, and Courtney Thomas, that group really reshaped the culture, and then when we came in, the culture was already great and we just kept getting more and more talent and more and more grit, and that’s what finally pushed us over the top.”
“The expectations are different now from what they were when her class came in,” Sheffield said. “I think those are things any competitive player wants to do. It was important to those guys, and they certainly helped elevate the program to a totally different level during their time here.”
What her coach did for her was not lost on Hilley.
“Looking back, you always say that your mom was right while you were growing up, and now that I’ve left, it’s like ‘Kelly was always right.’
“He cares about people and knows how to push them to get to their max potential. He knows how to communicate to get the best out of you. He really cares about your development. He spent so many hours with me teaching me about the game, strategy, leadership. He can make you laugh like crazy, but he’s also the reason I am as good as I am now.”
Hilley graduated from Wisconsin with a masters in applied biotechnology in 2022 and then spent time with playing professionally in Turkey for VakifBank in early 2022 before heading to Puerto Rico last summer.
But the long pro season and distance from home was too much. She returned home to Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, and got a job working as a manufacturing scientist at a medical diagnostics company.
Not that she has lost her love for volleyball.
Hilley started coaching at the Minnesota Select club she played for. For that matter, coaching the top 18s team proved a fortuitous opportunity to keep her volleyball skills sharp.
“I would scrimmage with those girls a lot,” she said. “I was able to get a lot of reps in that way. And then I also put in work on my own.”
So when the opportunity to join the Athletes Unlimited tour was presented, Hilley was ready to go. When her company agreed to allow her to work remotely, it was game on.
“To be able to be in my home country and continue to play volleyball at a high level was a win-win for me,” Hilley said. “I was really happy this opportunity came up.”
And, this past Wednesday, so were the Wisconsin volleyball faithful.