Former Illini All-American Hillary Haen is joining Kevin Hambly's volleyball staff as an assistant coach.
CHAMPAIGN — During his five-year tenure as Illinois volleyball head coach, Kevin Hambly increasingly has welcomed former Illini players to his staff.
To this point, those additions have been in the temporary roles of volunteer assistant (Laura DeBruler) and student assistant (Michelle Bartsch, Erin Johnson) or in the non-coaching position of director of volleyball operations (Johannah Bangert).
On Tuesday, Hambly announced he had dipped into this same pool again to fill a full-time assistant coaching position with — for the first time — an ex-Illini.
His choice: Hillary Haen.
The former All-America setter succeeds Jayme Gergen, who was not retained after one year on the UI staff. Haen’s hiring is effective Wednesday.
“As I entered this process, I thought that one of the things I’d like to explore was the option of a former player,” Hambly said.
The UI coach indicated that the presence in recent seasons of such former Illini as DeBruler and the others on the practice court and in the coaches’ offices was a positive for the program and influenced his selection of Haen.
“Just what it meant to have (ex-)players that have been through what our girls are going through and dealing with me,” Hambly said, “and the passion and the culture that they have, and how much they care about the program — just getting a good sense of (the impact of) that.”
In one sense, Haen is an out-of-the-box choice because she has no previous college coaching experience. Following her final season as an Illini in 2010, the Crystal Lake native went to work for Caterpillar, Inc., in Peoria as an accountant. In December 2012, she moved to the company’s human resources department.
However, Haen continued to keep her hand in volleyball, first coaching with the East Peoria-based Eastside Volleyball Club and later forming her own club program — Peoria Elite. The former News-Gazette first-team all-stater also served as head coach the past two seasons at Chillicothe IVC, guiding the Grey Ghosts to a cumulative 53-11 record and two Class 3A regional final appearances. Her 2012 team, which finished 28-3, set a school record for victories.
Haen said Hambly alerted her to the UI staff opening to gauge whether she would be interested. The opportunity immediately appealed to her, Haen said, because she could apply her knowledge and experiences in the human resources area to a volleyball environment.
“In HR at Caterpillar, I’m doing a lot of work with teams and with development, and that’s really a big part of where my passion is,” she said. “My other passion is volleyball.
“And this (UI) job just really seemed to bring both of those things together — the ability to work in small groups and with a team and kind of help with team dynamics as well as be a part of a sport that I’ve been playing and coaching for the last 12 to 13 years.”
Hambly said he has two primary duties for his newest assistant. Haen, who ranks fourth on the UI career assists chart (3,956), will coach the Illini setters.
“I’ve watched her teams; she’s a good teacher,” Hambly said. “And she understands this level, so I have no worries about that. The challenge is going to be trying to figure out how to inspire and train college-age kids, but she’s a quick learner. She’s a problem-solver so I feel great about that side of it.”
In addition, Hambly intends to groom Haen for the key role of recruiting coordinator. In fact, the UI coach indicated Haen would be out on the recruiting trail this weekend.
Haen views her HR background and Illini playing career as assets in this assignment.
“With recruiting, it’s a lot of building relationships, which is something that is a strength of mine,” she said. “Plus, I think going out there and talking to girls, I’m not trying to sell them anything I didn’t buy myself. And coming back to a program that I played for and a coach that I played for ... when a girl asks what is it going to be like, I have firsthand experience and I can really share that with them.”
Haen is joining a program that returns all but two players from a team that reached the NCAA Sweet 16 and was ranked No. 16 in the final coaches’ poll.
“I’m so excited,” said Haen, who played on three Sweet 16 qualifiers during her career. “I think that this is a really special team. There’s a ton of potential and a ton of opportunity for these girls to do some really great things, and I’m excited to see what skills I can add.”
Beltran to assist. Jennifer Beltran, who completed her Illini career last season as the school’s career digs leader, isn’t leaving the program just yet. The 2013 honorable mention All-American will serve as student assistant this spring while she completes her undergraduate degree.