It’s been nearly 10 years since the name Kim Exner captivated Cheney with hype surrounding Eastern Washington volleyball. Sophomore Hayley Hills’ 30-kill performance against Idaho State has left the door wide open for comparisons to the EWU Hall-of-Famer.
Hills came just four kills shy of the school record held by Exner, a two-time Big Sky MVP that also owns records in career kills (1,860 total, 592 more than any other Eagle), average kills per game over a career (4.43), hitting attempts over a career (4,331), kills in a season (561), and average kills per game in a season (5.29), a category in which she’s reigned since 1997-1999.
“I honestly didn’t even know I had that many kills,” Hills said. “When I learned about it, it was like ‘oh my God.’ It kind of bummed me out too: to be so close and not get it. I want another chance at it.”
Exner’s breakout season also came as a sophomore with the Eagles, where she became the single-season leader in kills per game and re-broke it two years later as a senior.
“Ten years later and it’s a record that still holds,” said Exner. “I feel that she’s capable of beating a lot of them. Some might be done over time and some might be this year. It’s not the records I broke that I remember, it’s the tournaments and the bus rides that carry with you.”
Hills has already elevated her game to lead the Eagles in kills per game (4.05), second on the team in digs per game (2.19) and third on the team in blocks per game (0.47). She has yet to miss a game this season.
But it wasn’t until after the Sept. 15 game that Hills learned about the near-record breaking game. Her teammates surrounded her, congratulating her about the impressive stat.
“It’s exciting for someone to be that close and have a good night,” said Interim Head Coach Irene Matlock, who took over for Wade Benson in the offseason.
Kills aren’t the only records Hills has potential of breaking, Matlock said Hills and teammate Mandy Daniels have the potential to impact school dig records. Daniels, a junior, leads the team with 4.81 per game.
Hills, from British Columbia, has played volleyball since she was 14 years old and was a middle blocker in high school. She decided on attending EWU because of the school’s proximity to her hometown.
“I was looking at a few schools in the States and I wanted to stay close to home,” Hills said. “I only get to go back twice a year anyways.” Hills also looked at schools on the east coast and in the south.Hills, selected by Sports B.C. as the High School Female Athlete of the Year in volleyball in the province of British Columbia, decided EWU was the right choice for her after a recruiting trip to the school. She got to meet the other players and she said they meshed together well. Assistant Coach Miles Kydd is from Canada too, which Hills said comforted her.
Exner, also of Canadian descent, said her recruiting trip was of similar fashion.
As a freshman, Hills spent all of last year averaging 1.60 kpg behind seniors Brittney Page and Chrystal Johnson, along with this year’s transfers Addie Webster and Kerri Beck, who all averaged above 2.49 kpg.
With all of the losses sustained, Hills still has goals of Big Sky Conference tournament glory and an NCAA tournament berth.
These were goals that were highly possible in Exner’s days as an Eagle, where she gives props on how great the team and fan base were.
“We had a wonderful core of girls and a wonderful coaching staff and support staff, we had good energy and good campus turnout,” she said. “Sweeping Montana every year, you would have everyone on campus congratulating you. In those days, half the school was at the volleyball game. It was a great atmosphere.”
In 10 years, attendance at home has been a key factor in the success of the Eagles, as they have been in the conference finals since 1998 and in the NCAA tournament three times.
Last season, Eastern ranked 26th in the nation in attendance with an average of 1,297 people.
In the first two games back since the beginning of school this year, Reese Court has only averaged 859 people.
One obstacle Exner’s team didn’t have to go through is the amount of youth on the roster. The Eagles currently have seven freshmen, five sophomores, one junior and two seniors.
“We’re a young team and our team is like a rollercoaster,” said Hills. “We need to maintain our game.”
While Hills is undecided on her major, she does know her aspirations are to play volleyball, preferably professionally.
“I would love to play somewhere professionally,” she said. “It would be a dream goal and dream life for me.”
Hills will continue letting her presence be known when third place Eagles (5-1) travel to conference front runner Portland State (6-0) Friday before returning home to Cheney to play Gonzaga on Tuesday, Oct. 9, at 7 p.m.