Hillary Haen: the driving force behind Illini volleyball’s offensive attack

Illinois Hillary Haen (8) sets the ball to Erin Johnson (12) against Purdue at Huff Hall on Friday, October 9, 2009.

Illinois’ Hillary Haen (8) sets the ball to Erin Johnson (12) against Purdue at Huff Hall on Friday, October 9, 2009.

By Kyle Diller

She’s volleyball’s equivalent to a quarterback. She reads the game. She makes the passes. She drives the offense. But who is the face beyond the volleyball team’s attack?

Enter Hillary Haen. The offensive abilities of senior Kylie McCulley, junior Laura DeBruler and sophomore Michelle Bartsch have bullied defenses and made headlines all season as the Illini climbed the rankings to a tie for fifth in the nation, but it’s Haen who’s running the show.

“If she doesn’t do it, we’re not successful offensively. As we’ve gotten better throughout this season, the big key that has been Hillary has gotten better,” head coach Kevin Hambly said. “Hillary puts (the hitters) in very good position to score, either by making a good choice or by the speed or the accuracy of the set.”

Preparation is a major part of the junior’s success. Haen regularly watches film with Hambly and analyzes opponents’ blocking systems. She knows what she’s up against, where the blocks will be and where she can look to exploit the defense. But it’s not always that simple to pull the offensive strings.

“You never really know what a team’s going to do though until you play them,” Haen said. “So I try out a couple things, usually a couple middle sets and then couple different outside sets and see what works for us.”

With her reads, Haen knows where the blockers are vulnerable and she knows which of her talented hitters are hot. She said some of being a setter is just getting in the other team’s head and playing mind games.

“A lot of setting just comes with the feel for the game and your connection with the hitters,” Haen said. “If I feel like the other team is really worried about (a certain hitter), then I think they’re a good hitter to set because it gets (the opposition) more frustrated. Even if that hitter doesn’t score, (the opposition is) so worried about them, then I can get it to somebody else because they’re so worried about that one hitter.”

The connection between Haen and her hitters is a vital relationship, and its one of complete trust and confidence — especially at the end of the game, when she puts a lot of faith in the hottest hitter.

“In the end of the game, I’m probably just going to go to whatever hitter is hot, no matter what they’re doing blocking-wise,” Haen said. “Leading up to that, I’m pretty lucky having such a diversified offense. I just like to spread the offense a lot and keep them guessing until the end.”

It’s not always that easy to find the hot hitter, though. Without stats in front of her, sometimes Haen relies on her coach to point out where to go.

“Kevin helps me with that,” Haen said. “Sometime I’ll forget, and he’ll be like, ‘Hello, Michelle is hitting .370. What are you doing?’”

The connection and confidence is a two-way street between Haen and the hitters. The Illini attackers have to rely on Haen to get them the ball. The perfect set can lead to the perfect kill and an Illinois point.

“We trust her that she’s going to play the right plays and she trusts us that we’re going to be there. It’s something that’s really unique and it’s really nice to have,” DeBruler said. “I think it’s phenomenal. The things that she’s doing, it’s great. She’s the one that’s allowing us to be very successful, and she’s doing a really, really great job for us.”