Hard work pays off for Illinois freshman Hinton

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Illini Athletics

Freshman Rylee Hinton spikes a ball during the Illini’s match against Illinois State at the Redbird Classic on September 13.

By Gabby Hajduk, Staff Writer

Many athletes who come to Champaign to compete for the University of Illinois aren’t familiar with the rural, small atmosphere of Central Illinois. They are typically from Chicago suburbs or out-of-state, often feeling far from home.

For Illinois volleyball freshman Rylee Hinton, Champaign isn’t her “home away from home.” It’s the place she grew up, the place she found her love for volleyball and the place she hopes to make a name for herself as a middle blocker for the Illini.

While Hinton came to school feeling comfortable with the campus and her surroundings, life on the Illinois volleyball court created new challenges. With senior Ashlyn Fleming and freshmen Kyla Swanson and Kennedy Collins creating competition at middle blocker, Hinton hasn’t seen the floor as much as she hoped to at the start the season.

“In high school, I was one of the better players, so not playing is something very new to me,” Hinton said. “The mental side of that was very challenging, but it made me want to work harder. It made me want it more.”

Hinton appeared in the first match of the season at Tennessee, then didn’t see action in the next three matches.

“She was in the lineup in the first match, and we had to sub her out,” said head coach Chris Tamas. “After that, she wanted to get back in, and she wanted it bad. She came in and said, ‘I’m just going to work every day, whatever extra things I can do…’ She just goes above and beyond the normal ask of practice to improve her game.”

The freshman saw the court again last weekend at the Redbird Classic, playing in all three matches. Hinton recorded a career-high eight blocks against Illinois State on Friday and five kills against Marquette on Saturday.

“Just because I played this weekend doesn’t mean I’m guaranteed that spot for the rest of the season,” Hinton said. “I’m going to have to keep working hard the rest of the season. It’s definitely challenging, but it’s been a great learning experience because things don’t always go your way in life in general.”

The phrase “working hard” is typically seen as a cliche in sports, but to Hinton, it’s a part of her identity. Hinton’s work ethic is the trait she prides herself in the most; she believes it’s the reason why she is playing for a Big Ten program.

“Something I’ve always believed in throughout my entire sports career is just outworking people and being the hardest-working one in the gym,” Hinton said. “That’s something I always go back to. Just working hard can get you so much farther than people think. Whenever you’re struggling, the one thing you can come back to is the gym. You can always come back and work and work and work and it really gets you places. I think that sets me apart from people.”

Hinton hasn’t always been this committed to the grind. It wasn’t until the club season of her junior year in high school that she grasped the importance of hard work over talent.

Playing for the Illini Elite Volleyball Club, Hinton built a strong relationship with coach Michelle Erins, who Hinton refers to as the most hardworking person she knows. The freshmen said Erins helped her build a stronger mentality and prepared her the most for collegiate volleyball.

“The mental part of the game is so underrated and plays such a big role in the performance,” Hinton said. “She taught me how to perform mentally. That was the year I really earned a big leadership role, which taught me a lot. Although I’m new to this team, and I’m not a leader right now, it taught me how to contribute to teams like this.”

While Hinton isn’t in a veteran role as an Illini yet, she is learning from one of the team’s leaders in Fleming. In her final season at Illinois, Fleming has assumed the role of the “middle mom.”

Hinton said she looks up to the senior and hopes to be like her one day, but Fleming feels she has just as much to learn from the freshman, often watching Hinton’s blocking abilities and implementing them into her own game.

Fleming said getting to work with Hinton in practice gives them time to focus on little improvements within the position that create personal victories in matches.

“When we do that in games, especially this weekend, if she would get a block or a kill or if I were to do the same when we would have timeouts, we would just have that eye contact with each other,” Fleming said. “Like, ‘You did it, you did the thing we worked on in practice.’ It’s a fun feeling to have that joy in those moments where you notice this person is also recognizing it and giving you that little shoutout you needed.”

Getting to build these family-like relationships within the team was important to Hinton when she committed to Illinois, but her selling point was Tamas and the coaching staff.

Hinton knows everyday she walks into the gym, the coaches will be there to push her past adversity. The Champaign native said the continued support from the coaches this season has validated her decision to stay home.

“This program has exceeded my expectations,” Hinton said. “I am so happy here. The coaches, and I still stand by this, are 100% the reason why I’m here.”

“People ask me all the time how I’m liking Illinois and I’m like, ‘I am so happy here.’ I am so happy with my decision to stay here and would not change it for anything. This coaching staff is one of a kind.”

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