FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Razorback volleyball is soaring to new heights this season.
The Hogs are 9-1, have upset two top-10 teams at home (Washington and Georgia Tech) and are now ranked 20th in the country.
That marks the team’s highest ranking since 1999.
“I think we’ve recruited really good people who happen to be really good volleyball players,” Arkansas head coach Jason Watson said of the team’s early success. “I think we’ve tried really hard as a staff to get out of their way, allow them to go be great and not put any limits on them in our gym.”
One of those really good people and volleyball players has been senior outside hitter Jillian Gillen, who has a team-high 123 kills this season.
The team’s hot start isn’t surprising to her.
“I think we all knew in open gym,” Gillen said of the team’s potential. “Like, when we were here in July, I think we all knew. Just the way that we supported each other and our level of competition in open gym when we didn’t have a coach there, and being able to help one another and give them feed back when we needed it.”
The team’s success is extra sweet for Gillen because of the road she’s taken to Arkansas.
Her mom played volleyball in college, so Gillen played volleyball growing up as well, but she didn’t start liking the sport until 8th grade.
“That’s when I really saw a change in my level of play and was like ‘wait, this is kind of fun and I’m having a really good time,’” Gillen said.
Gillen, who stands at 5’7”, was all-conference all four years of high school in Kansas, but her future at the SEC level wasn’t a guarantee.
“Obviously I’m a short outside hitter and one of the requirements I had was I want to hit,” she said. “I want to go as big as possible, but I want to hit.”
The Razorbacks and head coach Jason Watson were the first major program to give her that opportunity.
“I think it was the easiest recruiting pitch ever,” Watson said. “Well, why don’t you just come here and prove everybody wrong. If nobody thinks you can do it, then I’m good with you coming and doing it here.”
And that’s exactly what Gillen has done.
She was an All-SEC Freshman team selection her first year at Arkansas, and earned all-conference honors the following two seasons. She’s led the team in kills every year she’s been on campus.
“Jill has this little chip (on her shoulder),” Watson said. “I think she’s heavily motivated to prove people who have perhaps told her she can’t do this and can’t do that and can’t do a lot of things, that she ends up just being really good at.”
With Gillen, the Arkansas program is on the rise.
The team has gone from an 11-win team her freshman year, to being on track for the school’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2013.
“I’m just really proud of us and what we’ve been able to accomplish in a short period of time because from my freshman year to now, it’s just completely turned around.”
So as Arkansas heads into SEC play this week with tons of momentum, the Hogs are happy with what they’ve done, but are far from satisfied.
“We want to be a contender for the SEC championship,” Gillen said. “We want to be a contender in the NCAA Tournament. We don’t just want to make it. We want to compete in it.”
“Now we know what we’re capable of and we know we can do it, so we have bigger goals, and that’s really cool.”