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Portlander leads U.S. to world title, has Olympic dreams



Photo Credit: COURTESY OF FIVB - Kim Hill's life has changed since she tried out for the USA womens volleyball team -- and then went on to lead the team to its first world championship. Now she's playing in at Italian pro league.One day you’re a graduate of tiny Portland Christian High, fending for yourself amid a bevy of bigger names on the international volleyball scene. Then you’re handed the most valuable player trophy at the FIVB world championships after leading the U.S. women to their first title at a major international competition, and now you’re playing professionally in Italy.

Kim Hill is living the dream.

“Pinching myself doesn’t quite capture it,” Hill says via telephone from her flat in Novara, where she is playing for Igor Volley Novara in the Italian Pro League. “I still wake up every day and I’m in shock, thinking about where I was two years ago. It’s incredible. I never would have imagined this for myself at all, but here I am.”

There Hill is, living in a city of 100,000 about 30 miles west of Milan in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy, making good lira playing the game she loves while soaking in the Italian culture.

Four years ago, while at Pepperdine, Hill took part in a two-month summer exchange program in Florence.

“It was awesome,” she says. “I fell in love with Italy. Since then, I’ve wanted to play here, to become fully involved in the culture.”

The Italian League season, which runs through next May, has just started. Igor Volley Novara is 2-0 while losing its sole European League match to date. Hill and Team USA teammates Alix Klineman are the only Americans. The coach speaks English, but Hill is working on her mastery of the Italian language.

“I’m not great with it, but I’m slowly learning,” she says with a chuckle. “I’m understanding more and more. I started with some tutoring yesterday. Hopefully, that will speed it up.”

The experience so far, she says, “has been good. I’m really enjoying it. The club has been great to me. The girls on my team are nice, even though quite a few of them don’t speak

English.”

The 6-4 outside hitter, who turns 25 on Nov. 30, signed a two-year contract with her club.

“It’s a little bit rare and a bit risky considering I haven’t been here before,” Hill says. “But I should be here for two years unless something happens and I get bought out by another team.”

A year ago, Hill began her pro career with a season in Sopot, Poland, a resort town of about 40,000.

“The culture is very different from Italy,” she says. The people are “not nearly as friendly and warm, and volleyball-wise it was a little rough, but I had an overall good experience. And Sopot was awesome.”

Hill got her pro opportunity after what Team USA coach Karch Kiraly calls “the 72 hours that changed her life.”

The reference was to the USA women’s national team open tryout in Colorado Springs, Colo., in February 2013.

Hill showed up for the tryout — along with 240 other players — “kind of on a whim,” she says.

“My best friend (Lilla Frederick) played at Pepperdine, too,” Hill says. “Her mom called us the day before the tryout and said, ‘You girls need to go.’ I said, ‘It’s too late. No reason to go. We won’t make the team.’ She said, ‘Go for the experience.’ So we booked a plane ticket at the last minute. Thank goodness.”

Hill was the best player on the Pepperdine team that won the West Coast Conference championship and reached the NCAA Elite Eight her senior season, earning her first-team All-America honors. And she was part of the Waves’ two-woman team that won the inaugural NCAA sand volleyball title the next year.

But she wasn’t a true big shot on the national volleyball scene.

At Colorado Springs, it was serendipity. Hill not only impressed, “she was the star of the tryouts,” Kiraly told the media afterward. “She was the MVP. We’re thinking, ‘We have to get her in the gym.’”

“I didn’t see myself as the star of the show,” Hill says now. “I actually felt I played terrible the whole time.”

Hill was the only player from the tryout session whom Kiraly invited to return to Colorado Springs for an extended two-month tryout in May and June.

Says Hill: “I was thinking, ‘If I’m there for only a couple of months, it’s still such a privilege — the coolest experience ever. I’m going to enjoy whatever happens.’”

Hill not only made the team, but by August, she was a starter. She started every match through the World Grand Prix season and was a key member as the United States won the Pan-American Cup in Lima, Peru.

After returning from Poland in April this year, Hill rejoined the national team for a tournament in Switzerland, the World Grand Prix season and the four-match USA Volleyball Cup series with Brazil. Then it was on to Italy for the world championships.

“We hadn’t made finals week at the World Grand Prix,” Hill says. “We played terribly, and we were all frustrated and angry. We came back from that fired up and practiced really hard. We set a mission statement for ourselves, that we wanted to do what no team had done before. We wanted to win gold. We were very confident going in.”

The American reached the Oct. 12 finals, where they knocked off China 3-1 in Milan to win the title. Hill — who scored 20 points in the gold-medal victory — was named the MVP as well as second-best outside spiker.

“I was shocked, for sure,” Hill says. “I couldn’t believe where my life had led me so far. Looking at all the players I admire and players I’d seen win MVP in other tournaments ... oh my gosh, it blew my mind.”

And that of her father, Bradd.

“It’s been unbelievable — kind of a blur,” says the senior Hill, retired after a career in the insurance business. “Each level of volleyball you go through, you think she’s probably reached her peak. Then she goes to the next level and keeps accelerating.”

Hill’s modesty and deportment have made a good impression on those around her with Team USA.

“She’s a great teammate,” Kiraly says. “Her teammates really like her. She has a light way about her. She doesn’t get fazed by the media. She’s doing a great job for us.”

Hill grew up in Northeast Portland, the youngest of four daughters born to Bradd and Terri Hill. All of the older sisters — Shelby, 31; Caitlin, 29, and Kelsay, 27 — were volleyball and/or basketball players who competed through the college level.

Growing up in that household “was fun,” Kim says. “When I was little, I was always being dragged to my sisters’ matches, but I loved it overall. I got exposed to a lot of stuff. We have a very supportive family.”

“When Kim was little, she’d be sitting in the bleachers, kind of bored half the time,” her father says. “During her sisters’ high school basketball games, she’d go out and shoot baskets at halftime.”

Were the older sisters pretty rough on her?

“Surprisingly, no,” Kim says. “The older sisters were rough with each other, but they all loved on me.”

Did having older sisters help with Kim’s athletic progress?

“For sure,” she says. “Not only by getting to see higher levels, but also getting opportunities because people knew my sisters. Also, my parents learned lessons in how to bring kids up in the sports world. My sisters didn’t have near the opportunities I did.”

Hill played basketball and soccer as a youth and didn’t start volleyball until eighth grade, when she was already 6 feet tall. She won a state basketball championship at Portland Christian and was Class 2A volleyball player of the year as a senior. But she got her first exposure to college scouts between her sophomore and junior years, when she played for the NIke Northwest Junior Air Elite team that won the 219-team National Festival of Champions at Reno, Nev.

“I didn’t play any national-level volleyball until then,” Hill says. “I probably didn’t develop as early as a lot of players, but it was a huge advantage mentally as well as in terms of physical health. I wasn’t pushed to practice multiple times a day. I played purely for the love of it. It was totally fun.

“As I got to higher levels, I had to learn what other players learned when they were younger than me, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”

Ranked by one service as the No. 8 prospect in the country, Hill was recruited by most of the Pac-10 schools, “but I wanted to go to a smaller school,” she says. “The WCC isn’t quite as good as the (Pac-12), but it’s still a high level of volleyball. I had a lot of fun during my time at Pepperdine.”

She stayed for a fifth year to participate in sand volleyball, coming away with a national title.

“I trained on the beach that whole year,” Hill says. “It was the most fun year ever.”

As Hill looks back, she is thankful for the coaches who have brought her to this point, including Portland Christian basketball coach Tom West, Portland State volleyball coach Michael Seemann — who coached her at the club level — and former Pepperdine coach Nina Matthies.

“Nina was like the pioneer for women’s sand volleyball and one of the best beach players of all-time,” Hill says. “She has this ferocity about her. I’ve never seen a female athlete like her. I’ve never seen anyone like her. She became a volleyball mom to me.”

Hill, who makes her home now in Anaheim, Calif., where Team USA trains, would like to compete at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and be part of the first U.S. women’s volleyball team to win Olympic gold.

“That would be a dream,” she says. “I’m the kind of person who has no idea where I’ll be tomorrow, but I know I want to play through the Olympics, if I can make that team.

“It’s hard to imagine giving up volleyball after that. I’ll play as long as I love it. If that takes 10 years, great. If it’s two or three, that’s good, too. I’m taking it one year at a time and enjoying each place I’m in.”

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Twitter: @kerryeggers

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