“I stands out as the tallest, however the folks round me make me really feel small as a result of they’re mighty. I’ve some small, mighty folks round me.”
— Arkansas center Zoi Evans
This story truly has a again story, however finally it’s about Arkansas, a merely scrappy, undersized, enjoyable crew to observe that occurs to be actually good — No. 13 within the VolleyballMag.com Tremendous 16 Media Ballot — and one that’s driving a 12-match successful streak and simply one in every of two SEC groups nonetheless unbeaten in league play.
Earlier than attending to the 2023 Razorbacks, nonetheless, right here’s the again story.
One 12 months and some weeks in the past, Arkansas visited Baton Rouge to play open SEC play at LSU. The Razorbacks had been 9-1 on the time, off to this system’s greatest begin since 2012. It was a crew with two undersized outsides, 5-foot-10 Taylor Head and 5-7 (actually) Jill Gillen who had been crushing it, together with a 5-8 setter in Hannah Hogue and a 5-8 libero in Courtney Jackson.
We visited the evening earlier than the LSU match, Head, Gillen and me, and had a beautiful interview. Then I took this image:
I wasn’t certain once I would get round to writing the story, however …
Arkansas misplaced in 5 the following evening at LSU. That meant the story needed to maintain.
4 days later, the Razorbacks gained at Ole Miss, however there was no time on my schedule to jot down. The story might wait.
However then they obtained swept at Mississippi State earlier than successful in 5 the following day. Extra self-induced non-writing excuses adopted earlier than Arkansas misplaced back-to-back matches to Kentucky. OK, Arkansas had Tennesse at house and if it might pull off a few victories, it was time to jot down.
Arkansas swept Tennessee two days in a row. However Gillen obtained harm. The story was haunted and, effectively, it merely by no means noticed the sunshine of day.
Which brings us to a 2023 season wherein Arkansas is 14-2 — the one losses had been on back-to-back nights in late August to top-ranked Wisconsin — and 4-0 within the SEC. Solely Tennessee (14-1, 5-0) has a greater document in a league that obtained seven groups into final 12 months’s NCAA Match.
Arkansas is within the midst of taking part in only one match in 9 days. The Razorbacks go to Missouri on Sunday earlier than taking part in host to Ole Miss on Friday.
“We’ve gotten higher and higher annually and this 12 months has been a dream,” Gillen mentioned after Arkansas swept at LSU this previous Wednesday evening. “However we don’t need to jinx something, so we’re simply going to remain within the current.”
Her crew hit .343 and got here away with a 25-20, 25-19, 25-20 victory.
“Your first street journey in convention and also you by no means know the way it’s going to go,” eighth-year Arkanas coach Jason Watson mentioned. “We performed effectively and responded effectively.”
Gillen, the fifth-year outdoors from Stillwell, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas Metropolis, had 15 kills with two errors in 31 assaults to hit .419. She had an ace, six digs and two blocks, one solo. For that matter — and keep in mind, she’s 5-7 — she has 24 blocks, six solo.
Additionally towards LSU, Head had 14 kills, 14 digs and a solo block.
Gillen leads Arkansas with 240 kills, an SEC-best 4.21/set, and is hitting .293. with 163 digs.
Head, a senior from Winter Backyard, Florida, has 227 kills (3.98/set), 28 blocks and 172 digs.
In the true world, these are tall ladies.
“We’re tiny,” Head mentioned final 12 months. “However we go the job executed.”
“They love taking part in volleyball,” Watson mentioned. “That’s the factor. They bounce effectively sufficient they usually play effectively sufficient.”
“We get a ton of emails from 5-7 outsides, after all, however not all of them bounce, not all of them can do the issues that these children are doing.
“We pay a tax on it some nights and it’s exhausting for us to play back-to-back (which they don’t within the SEC and gained’t within the NCAA Match), however we’re doing it.”
Gillen hit .172 as a freshman when she averaged 3.75 kills/set. As a sophomore within the COVID season, she averaged 3.9 kills and hit .189. Within the fall of 2021, she averaged 4.12 kills and hit .206. And final 12 months, lacking a handful of matches and taking part in harm the final half of the season, she averaged 3.6 kills and hit .224, a proportion that went down when she performed injured later within the season.
“That is my final 12 months, my final 12 months to compete with these folks and I really like these folks,” Gillen mentioned. “And I’ll do something to assist us succeed. I believe having that mindset has helped me to play slightly bit extra clear and make smarter decisions.”
That’s not misplaced on her coach.
“She was taking part in perhaps not this effectively, however she was taking part in rather well earlier than she had that harm towards Tennessee final 12 months,” Watson mentioned. “So I believe there’s some urgency there. Life is chapters and she or he desires to jot down a fairly good chapter right here.”
Maggie Cartwright, a 5-11 grad scholar from Kimberly, Wisconsin, has 152 kills (2.67/set), 115 digs and 40 blocks.
Sania Pettis, a 6-1 junior center from Houston, has 121 kills and 47 blocks.
The tallest participant on the crew, Zoi Evans, a 6-4 junior center from Tampa, has 34 kills and 56 blocks.
“I stands out as the tallest, however the folks round me make me really feel small as a result of they’re mighty,” Evans mentioned. “I’ve some small, mighty folks round me.”
Libero Courtney Jackson has 223 digs, 3.91/set and is averaging greater than an help per set.
Hogue, the junior from Fort Smith, Arkansas, about an hour south of Fayetteville, is averaging 11.25 assists per set, is tied with Gillen with 28 aces (Head has 26) and averages 2.31 digs and has 21 blocks.
“I’ve reallly good hitters,” Hogue mentioned. “They make a setter’s job rather a lot simpler. I simply throw up a great ball they usually do the remainder.”
“She makes everybody in our fitness center higher,” Gillen mentioned.
“We are saying this and we chuckle about it, however she’s from Fort Smith, Arkansas, and that’s a tough city,” Watson mentioned. “You’ve obtained to be robust there and also you’ve gotta get after it. She’s a troublesome child. She’s put in her time to create a relationship with children and that’s not all the time simple and she or he’s holding her personal within the entrance row. She’s fairly calm and we’ve obtained some children who can experience the curler coaster, however she’s regular.”
Hogue: “This can be a dream come true. It’s exceeding my expectations and it continues to. It’s only a blessing and I’m grateful for it day-after-day.”
The principle cog is Gillen, who merely defies lots of volleyball logic.
Gillen was, after all, recruited primarily as a libero. To these colleges, she by no means responded. Watson “was the primary SEC coach who mentioned I’d play and I’d get to hit on the excessive stage I used to be striving to be at.”
Gillen is a superior jumper — she touches over 10 toes — can flat-out crush a ball, is a fearless defender, and is, merely, a baller. For that matter, she performed basketball in center college and, not surprisingly, “I fouled out rather a lot.”
“She’s nonetheless the identical child as after we recruited her,” Watson mentioned. “She has this huge chip on her shoulder, nonetheless. She has a chip and don’t ignite that chip. You don’t need to try this. You don’t need to try this.”
Gillen, who comes from an athletic household and whose mother, the former Kady Berger, played at Morehead State (1984-86), obtained amusing out of the story about this story, about how this by no means obtained written a 12 months in the past. We talked concerning the flip of occasions and she or he mentioned she tore her posterior cruciate ligament and was out for 4 matches.
“It was as much as me and I wished to return again and I pushed it, simply being me, and I believe ending that season and never being one hundred percent actually obtained to me. I went via lots of self doubt and lots of reflection.
“And in addition lots of gratitude, I believe, to be the place I’m now and that I get to play wholesome each single day. I’m grateful for that.”