Former volleyball standout soars from court to military

Beth Hoeltje didn’t grow up wanting to play Division I volleyball — she wanted to be a fighter pilot.

However, the former Illini volleyball player’s genetic makeup just didn’t match up with the job.

“I’m too short,” said Hoeltje, who’s 5-foot-5. “If I had to eject in a certain aircraft it would have broken my spine, so they never let me fly. Especially for the fighters that I wanted to fly, it wasn’t going to be possible.”

Despite the inability to pursue her dream, Hoeltje still commissioned into the Air Force through Illinois’ Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program in December of 2007. Now an Air Force lieutenant who works in human resources, she’s stationed at Aviano Air Base in Italy with her husband, Shaun Hoeltje, an F-16 pilot.

“He was tall enough,” Beth lightheartedly said.

While Hoeltje is almost five years removed from her collegiate volleyball career, she still finds time to play in the Air Force. She said she has met several women from the Air Force Academy volleyball team and a few others from Division I schools at other air bases.

“There’s always good volleyball at every base you go to,” she said. “It’s actually pretty awesome.”

Hoeltje plays on the Aviano Air Base team and participates in Air Force tournaments, including an upcoming one in February.

Her husband said he got into volleyball when he started dating his future wife when they both were Air Force ROTC students at Illinois.

“It is fun to go to a pickup or backyard game with people who don’t know she played Big Ten volleyball and see the looks on their faces when she dives into the grass to dig out a spike,” he said. “The reaction is priceless.”

Hoeltje was recruited to Illinois to play volleyball. Still wanting to pursue a career in the military, she joined the Air Force ROTC program. She said the program was willing to work around her volleyball commitments.

“ROTC was very, very lenient,” she said. “They let me miss a lot of class, a lot of different stuff in order to go to volleyball. It was always clear volleyball came first.”

Hoeltje said she often had to make up work for ROTC and class on the weekends to keep up with her rigorous schedule.

“It was a lot,” she said. “You really have to make sure it’s something that you want to do, especially with how much time you’re putting into it.”

Shaun Hoeltje, who recently returned to Italy after six months at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, said his then-girlfriend was always busy in college and would often get just one to two hours of sleep during the volleyball season. He said Beth’s “fighter pilot attitude” — a phrase he said is used often in the Air Force — is what helped her make it through such a demanding collegiate career.

“Fighter pilot is a mentality, an attitude of never wanting to relent until the job is done and always wanting to improve upon your own performance,” he said in an email. “The idea that success is never final. It is aggressiveness, decisiveness and confidence.

Beth is all of these things, and I think it’s simply in her nature to succeed as a result.”

Beth said Don Hardin, an Air Force veteran and volleyball head coach while she was at Illinois, was very supportive of her decision to join ROTC in her freshman year.

“When I started throwing the idea of ROTC around, he was immediately supportive of it, so that really opened the door,” she said. “If he would have said, ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea,’ things could have turned out way different.”

Hardin said an ROTC colonel approached him with concerns about Hoeltje missing physical activities in the morning for volleyball practices and said some students were upset that she didn’t have to attend everything required of someone in the program; however, Hardin said it didn’t take long for Hoeltje to address those concerns.

“He came to me after they had their physical testing day and says, ‘Beth totally kicked butt over most of the class and even a lot of the guys, so the concern has quieted down and I don’t think we’ll be hearing it anymore,’” Hardin said. “It really bothered her that she couldn’t participated in it. Knowing Beth, she would’ve loved to be on her belly in the mud at 5 a.m. or whatever else they were doing.”

Hoeltje enjoyed a successful volleyball career while at Illinois. She played in 124 matches over four seasons and set the Illini single-season digs record at 520 as a junior in 2005.

Hoeltje said she enjoyed playing for Hardin, but admitted that, at times, their relationship had “up and down” moments.

“We had our times where we would fight, but we also had our times where everything was really great,” she said.

Hardin said the demands Hoeltje faced as a student, athlete and member of ROTC were challenging and sometimes frustrating for her.

“If anything, it was a problem of just me responding to the pressures of the situations and demanding that Beth keep up her end with us,” he said. “She was having everybody — school, ROTC and me — barking at her, but I’d never had a problem with how Beth handled it.”

Hardin said he was impressed with how Hoeltje found success among her three demanding schedules.

”Being an undergraduate here at the University of Illinois is a challenging experience and a lot of people don’t make it through,” Hardin said. “Put on top of that being in the ROTC, and then you put on top of that being a varsity athlete; it’s just amazing what she was able to juggle and get done during her time here. … She was first class in every way.”

_Jamal Collier contributed to this report._