Like many aspiring young volleyball players in the Twin Cities area, Sydney Hilley grew up in a Maroon and Gold world, entertaining dreams of someday playing for the University of Minnesota.
These days, of course, her dreams are strictly Cardinal and White.
Hilley’s worlds will clash Wednesday night as the freshman setter leads the No. 7 University of Wisconsin volleyball team against the No. 6 Golden Gophers at the UW Field House in a battle of two of the premier programs in the nation.
While Hilley has totally embraced all things Badger, the native of Brooklyn Park, a northwest suburb of Minneapolis, also has deep roots in Gopher culture. Her grandfather and an uncle played baseball for Minnesota and she grew up attending Gophers basketball games and volleyball matches with her family.
“I grew up just wanting to be a Gopher, I guess,” Hilley said. “I can remember going to games with my grandparents when I was 5 or 6 and I guess those were the only colors I even knew. When I was really young I had a little Goldy Gopher stuffed animal in my room. It was all Gophers.”
Hilley’s horizons started to expand during her freshman year at Champlin Park High School when she took recruiting visits to UW, Nebraska, Penn State and a few other schools.
“I was always thinking that Minnesota was going to be one of my top choices, so when I got it narrowed down to Wisconsin and Minnesota I was really conflicted,” she said. “All of the sudden I knew I wanted to go to Wisconsin.”
Hilley realized that the moment she feared she might have missed out on her chance.
UW coach Kelly Sheffield offered the opportunity to eventually succeed Lauren Carlini at setter to Hilley and to Ashley Shook, who was playing for Carlini’s Sports Performance club program.
“He said whoever takes it, gets it,” Hilley said. “Then I saw him tweet “BINGO” and I thought Ashley had taken my spot and I was heartbroken. As soon as I saw that I was like, I need to be a Badger so I committed right away.”
As it turned out, that BINGO tweet was to signify a different player’s commitment and Hilley was able to get on board, while Shook eventually picked Texas.
Not surprisingly, Hilley’s decision to cross the border didn’t sit well with everybody.
“People at my school always gave me crap for it,” said Hilley, the No. 3 ranked recruit last season by PrepVolleyball.com. “There’s a bunch of teachers that always said, ‘Better dead than red.’ I heard that so many times, especially last year when Wisconsin got beat by Minnesota pretty badly. The next day at school I was getting a ton of crap for that.”
Hilley and the Badgers (11-2, 2-2 Big Ten) will be attempting to snap a four-match losing streak against the Gophers (13-2, 2-2), with the loser in danger of falling out of the Big Ten race.
“It’s a huge test for us,” Hilley said. “Everybody’s good. That’s kind of the scary thing here. Every single night if you don’t show up you’re going to get beat and it doesn’t matter who you’re playing. I’ve never played in anything like that in my life.”
Hilley said she is friends with several of the Minnesota players, including junior All-America setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson, who is from Minnetonka, about 20 miles south of Brooklyn Park.
“She’s awesome,” Hilley said. “I really enjoy her and my mom and her mom are sort of friends. I played against her team in a high school scrimmage but we never saw each other in a real match.
“She’s really fun to watch. I just love the way she can set anyone with that same tempo over and over again. That’s really hard to do.”
The presence of Seliger-Swenson at Minnesota was a minor factor in Hilley’s decision to go elsewhere.
“That was a little bit of it,” she said, “but I just wanted to go to a school where I was going to love the school and love the program. Playing was a big part of it, too, but I just needed to go where I felt like I was going to succeed and be happy and this is where I thought I’d be happiest.”