Hillary Haen would have been perfectly happy to stay in Peoria, working in Caterpillar’s human resources department and coaching high school volleyball at Illinois Valley Central in Chillicothe.
The 2007 Prairie Ridge graduate loved her day job and coaching volleyball, both at IVC and with her own club, Peoria Elite, kept her involved with the sport that had given her so much in her 25 years.
Yet she found the possibility of college coaching intriguing. For the second time, she listened to a sales pitch from Illinois volleyball coach Kevin Hambly. This time, he was asking her to join his staff as an assistant coach.
And, just like eight years earlier, when Haen was being recruited to play for the Fighting Illini, she said, “Yes.”
Haen, the only three-time Northwest Herald Volleyball Player of the Year, accepted the position as assistant volleyball coach at Illinois on Tuesday. She reunited with Hambly, who was instrumental in her recruitment when he was an assistant coach back in 2005 and 2006.
“I really, really liked my job at Cat and I’ve been blessed to work with pretty amazing people here,” Haen said. “It was just like I felt something was kind of missing, especially in your 20s, when you’re trying to think, ‘What is my long-term career going to look like?’ I wanted to be part of something I could be really, really passionate about.”
Haen had an outstanding high school career, playing on the Wolves’ Class AA state runner-up teams in 2004 and 2005. She took over as the Illini’s starting setter in her sophomore season and finished fourth on Illinois’ career list with 3,956 assists. She was an All-America third-team selection by American Volleyball Coaches Association and Volleyball Magazine as a senior.
“She’s a really smart player. She just has a great volleyball I.Q. and it’s fun to be around her,” Hambly said. “The last two years she was here, we’d have discussions on how to attack teams. It didn’t matter if it came from me or came from her, but it mattered that she put a lot of thought into it and had an opinion. There’s only three or four setters I’ve ever coached, including the national team, who put that much thought into every single match and how they were going to attack.”
Hambly and Haen talked at length when she returned to Champaign for the Illinois Alumni Game last fall. Hambly knew she had an interest, although she also had a good job in Peoria. She was one of his first calls when the job came open.
“I said, ‘I’m not going to convince you to do it, because I know you have a good gig,’ ” Hambly said. “She called me back and said she wanted to do it, and here are the reasons why. She sold me on all the reasons she had.”
Haen, whose IVC teams were 28-3 and 23-8 the last two seasons, heeded some advice from Hambly and from her father John. Hambly urged her not to do it as an experiment, but as a career. John Haen told his daughter, “If you don’t want to become a head coach eventually, then this probably isn’t the best career move for you.”
“I had to sit and think about that, long-term,” she said. “That’s definitely my long-term goal, to be a head coach.”
Dan Conners will assume the first assistant role on the staff and work on scheduling, game plans and studying videos. Haen, as the No. 2 assistant, will focus on recruiting and the offense, particularly working with the setters. Hambly believes Haen can thrive as a recruiter.
“When I was being recruited by Illinois, Kevin said, ‘Come to Illinois, take a risk and let’s build a program together,’ ” Haen said. “Now I can go back and continue building that. In four years, you really only start to scratch the surface of what it really means to build a program. It’s an exciting opportunity to go back and continue living that dream.”