Sydney Hilley sets the volleyball.

Sydney Hilley excited to play in the US and return to Wisconsin

© Athletes Unlimited, LLC 2023 / Credit: James Zehren
Bruce Miles
Apr 04, 2023

How important is it that Athletes Unlimited is giving female professional volleyball players a chance to play in the United States? 

Let Sydney Hilley tell it. 

“Honestly, when I went overseas, I just knew that lifestyle wasn’t for me, so I actually debated quitting volleyball entirely just because I knew I didn’t want to spend nine months out of every year in a different country,” she said. 

Let that sink in for a moment. 

For many, the overseas experience can be wonderful, eye opening and life changing. Hilley herself has trained in Turkey. But for others who would rather stay closer to home, there was almost no choice at all until Athletes Unlimited came along. It was either head overseas or quit playing the sport you love. 

So when the chance arose for Hilley to join Athletes Unlimited, she figuratively used all of her volleyballs skills and jumped. 

“The opportunity to play volleyball in the U.S. at a high level was something that drew my attention,” she said. “So when they reached out to me, I was like, ‘Heck, yeah, let’s do it and let’s grow volleyball in the U.S. so that players don’t have to go overseas to play professionally if they don’t want to.’

“Some people really love it. For some people, it’s a lot of sacrifice just to be over there. It’s very isolating. If you’re close with friends and family, it’s really difficult. But to have the opportunity to be in your home country where everyone speaks the same language, it’s a huge benefit.”

Hilley will bring her message home to her alma mater, the University of Wisconsin, as part of Athletes Unlimited’s Volleyball Exhibition Tour, where AU pros play against college teams. 

Not only will Hilley be able to revisit the UW Field House – home of the 2021 champions – but she’ll also be able to share a pregame meal from her favorite restaurant, Forage Kitchen. 

“It’s crazy because I never thought I’d play in the Field House again,” she said. “Honestly, it’s going to be a little weird not wearing a Wisconsin jersey in the Field House, but overall, I’m just really excited to go back. It’s such a fun environment to play in. Even when I was there during spring matches, they would almost sell out. They had so many fans there, even in spring games.

“I’m excited to show people who haven’t played at Wisconsin before on my team just how cool an environment it can be because I know the crowd is going to be going crazy. The Field House in general is a special place to be. I can’t believe I get one more opportunity to play there. It will be fun to see the coaches and all the girls still there. So I’m really looking forward to it.”

In keeping with the theme of growing women’s pro volleyball in the U.S., Hilley is looking forward to Badgers fans going crazy over something completely different. 

“I think it’s a great idea because we’ve seen just how college volleyball fan bases have grown over the last few years,” she said. “During my career at Wisconsin, we sold out, I think, almost every single game. You go to other places in the country, and it’s the same way. Nebraska is selling out. Records for how many people are in attendance for matches and how many people watched the Final Four and national championship games. You’ve seen that there’s an audience for it. Fans in these college towns are super dedicated to the game. They’re educated about it, and they love it.

“I think this tour is super important because not a lot of people know about this league. Going to these places that have tons of fans who already love volleyball is a great opportunity to grow the sport.”

Already on the Tour, Hilley has made some highlight reel plays. Not bad for a setter. 

“It’s the people around me making me look good, honestly,”  she said with a laugh. “Super good defense and attackers who can just put the ball in and make my job a lot easier.”

Hilley is hopeful she will be able to play in the Athletes Unlimited Championship season this fall. She owns an undergrad degree in genetics and a master’s in applied biotechnology and currently works as a manufacturing scientist for Beckman Coulter. 

“I’m still in the decision-making process, but for right now, my plan is to play,” she said. “My job has been really great about being flexible and my boss was former collegiate athlete. He’s been super supportive of me playing and working around my schedule. That’s definitely something that’s a possibility.

“Regarding volleyball, I want to keep playing if I’m loving it and having fun. If it ever comes a time where I’m not really enjoying this anymore, then I’m going to be done. As long as I love it, I’m going to play. For my career, I think my goal right  now is to become a project manager at Beckman Coulter and be able to lead some projects that we can help people with and bring to market.”

The memories will come flooding back to Hilley once she steps foot on campus in Madison. One, though, stands above the rest. 

“If I had to choose a singular moment, it would be winning the national championship just because it was the perfect ending to my college career,” she said. “It’s something the program had never done before. Overall, looking back on my experience, it’s just the people you’re around is what I miss the most and being around such dedicated and strong people all the time and getting to live with some of my best friends and see them every single day. The friendships that I got out of the experience is definitely the most rewarding thing.”


Bruce Miles has covered sports in the Chicago area for more than 40 years, covering baseball, hockey, football, college and high school sports, and Athletes Unlimited Softball. You can follow him on Twitter @BruceMiles2112.

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