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The Natural: Hillyard adapts to new role, leads PG boys volleyball to 6A title

By Darnell Dickson - | Jun 13, 2024
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Pleasant Grove's Ethan Hillyard sets the ball during the 6A boys volleyball state championship match against Lone Peak at the UCCU Center on Saturday, May 18, 2024.
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Pleasant Grove's Ethan Hillyard, center, awaits a serve during the 6A boys volleyball state championship match against Lone Peak at the UCCU Center on Saturday, May 18, 2024.
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Pleasant Grove's Ethan Hillyard sets the ball during warmups before the first-ever high school boys volleyball match in Utah on Monday, March 4, 2024.
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Pleasant Grove's Ethan Hillyard takes a swing against Lone Peak in the 6A boys volleyball state championship match at the UCCU Center on Saturday, May 18, 2024.
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Pleasant Grove's Ethan Hillyard (left) encourages his teammates at the 6A boys volleyball state championship match at the UCCU Center on Saturday, May 18, 2024.

 

Among the many items on Dave Neeley’s “to-do” list when he took the head boys volleyball coaching job at Pleasant Grove was this one, likely underlined at least twice in yellow highlighter: “Find a setter.”

Senior Ethan Hillyard — who had played club volleyball but never at the setter spot — sent a text to Neeley in December.

“Hi Coach. My name is Ethan,” the message read. “I have been a starting hitter on PG’s club team since my freshman year, but we don’t have a setter for this upcoming season. I have never played setter before, but I am willing to learn how to be a setter if you need me to be.”

Neeley took Hillyard up on his offer and the results were good.

No, great: Hillyard and his teammates went on a roll late in the season and as the No. 3 seed claimed the 6A boys volleyball state title with a 3-1 victory over Region 3 foe Lone Peak.

Hillyard is completely deserving of the first Daily Herald Boys Volleyball Player of the Year award.

“He would have been our best hitter, no doubt, if he had played on the outside,” Neeley said. “He ran our funky offense and played some in the middle. There were a lot of impressive things he was able to do. After matches, he was the player other coaches, players and the referees wanted to talk about. It makes me think I might not ever coach a kid like that again.”

Hillyard totaled 980 assists (8.0 per set) this season while also contributing 243 digs and 30 service aces. In PG’s unique offense, Hillyard also showed his versatility with 142 kills (1.2 per set). In the semifinals and finals of the state tournament, Hillyard contributing 22 total kills and a team-high .362 hitting percentage while also directing the offense.

“You have to be able to be composed as a setter,” Hillyard said. “If you start panicking, it hurts the whole team. You’re the one putting the ball where it needs to go. You have to be able to learn how to be a leader. If someone else is freaking out you need to be someone who can calm them down and put their anger to use instead of getting mad at everyone.”

The 6-foot-4 Hillyard played basketball during the winter and made 34 3-pointers on a PG team that set the state record for threes with 288. But the Vikings lost seven of their final eight games and bowed out in the second round of the state tournament.

Hillyard’s commitment to basketball kept him from participating in volleyball open gyms and he didn’t get any real experience as a setter until the first day of practice.

“He’d never set until three days before our first match,” Neeley said. “We ended up going 13-0 to start the season and we’d had only 13 practices, so he’d only had 13 practices as a setter his whole life. He’s such a smooth athlete. He does things naturally that he’s never been taught. We didn’t train him to do it because we didn’t have time.”

Hillyard was a sponge as he tried to learn the intricacies of playing setter.

“I asked Coach Neeley for some tips and tricks,” Hillyard said. “He sent me a lot of videos. I mean, playing setter looked fun. You get to touch the ball every time. As a middle, you don’t get to play back row and more than half the time you don’t get set. Someone had to be the setter and I’d always wanted to do it. I was kind of terrible at it to start but I really wanted us to win. We set winning the state title as a goal.”

There was some frustration early on as Hillyard searched for footing in his new position — Neeley recalls finding a PG basketball practice jersey in a trash can ripped in half after one particular loss — but eventually Hillyard got into a good groove.

“He matured a ton toward the end of the year,” Neeley said. “When we changed the offense and started letting him hit a little, he was calmer and more relaxed. After we tweaked the offense, I told my assistant coaches that there was probably no other player in the country doing what Ethan is doing right now.”

Pleasant Grove won its final 13 matches of the season, moving past Copper Hills (3-2), Bingham (3-0) and Syracuse (3-1) to reach the championship match. After splitting the first two sets against Lone Peak, the Vikings’ offense started cooking and there was nothing the Knights could do to slow them down.

At championship point in Set 4 (24-15), the ball found its was into Hillyard’s hands, as always.

“Every single person on the floor was like, ‘Ethan, set me,'” Hillyard said. “I could have set any of them. Everyone wanted the ball and everyone had the ability to get it down.”

Hillyard chose Weston Johanson, and the senior outside hitter pounded the ball to the floor for the winner.

“You want to have a lot of options so you’re not easy to read,” Hillyard said. “Being good at distribution means knowing where the ball needs to do. I have quick feet from playing basketball so that made it easier for me.”

Hillyard has his church mission call and will leave July 31 to serve in Tijuana, Mexico. He said he’ll decide when he gets back if he wants to try to continue his volleyball career.

“I’m good friends with Evan Olmstead (who plays at American Fork),” Hillyard said with a laugh. “Maybe his dad (BYU men’s volleyball coach Shawn Olmstead) knows my name.”

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