If asked about an undersized student-athlete that has excelled at the University of Arkansas, most people might think of the 5-foot-11 Isaiah Satagena or maybe the 179-pound Cam Little from the Arkansas football team, but perhaps the most impressive athlete on campus doesn’t play football at all. Instead she is starring for the 9th-ranked Razorback volleyball team.
Jill Gillen stands at 5-foot-7 while playing a position, outside hitter, that is typically filled by someone who is at least 6 feet tall, yet she led her team to a 25-5 (15-3) record and No. 9 ranking to finish the regular season while emerging as the all-time kills record holder in UA history. Alongside the soccer Razorbacks, the volleyball team has been the most successful fall sports team on campus and Gillen is right at the center of it.
Gillen grew up outside of Kansas City and was not a highly rated recruit. “I was told my freshman year that I would be lucky to play Division II,” said Gillen in an interview with Bo Mattingly on the Hogpod. The biggest problem was Gillen’s height. Even when a school might show interest, Gillen was fearful they only wanted her as a libero, a specialist for defense and passing. “I know a lot of people just recruit these small outsides (hitters) and then just make them a [defensive specialist].”
However, Arkansas volleyball coach Jason Watson saw something special in Gillen. His was one of two offers Gillen received her sophomore year in high school, and he never had a thought of assigning her as a defensive specialist. “I think it was the easiest recruiting pitch ever,” Watson told 5NEWS. “Well, why don’t you just come here and prove everybody wrong. If nobody thinks you can do it, then I’m good with you coming and doing it here.”
It was a match made in heaven.
Gillen noticed the all-time kills record in Razorback history in early October. She now has 2,009 with at least one more guaranteed match in the NCAA tournament on Friday night.
One of the reasons Gillen is so good is her extraordinary ability to jump, routinely clearing 10 feet during matches. For comparison, that’s the height of a standard basketball hoop and Gillen, at 5-foot-7, says she gets upset if her jumps are only that high, preferring to reach 10-foot-2 or 10-foot-3.
Gillen’s height seems to have also given her extra drive. “Jill has this little chip (on her shoulder),” Watson said. “I think she’s heavily motivated to prove people who have perhaps told her she can’t do this and can’t do that and can’t do a lot of things, that she ends up just being really good at.” When Gillen got to third on the all-time kill list at Arkansas, Watson said, “That’s a pretty cool deal for her especially considering that no one probably thought she could get a kill in college.”
Think about that for a second. Think about somebody looking at a Todd Day in high school and thinking, “He’ll never score a single point in college.” Or a Darren McFadden or KJ Jefferson and feeling neither would get a single rushing or passing yard, respectively.
To go from a place where nothing was expected to a school’s all-time leader in this category is one of the most impressive achievements in SEC sports history. Gillen’s philosophy is to simply outwork her competition.
“I think hard work is how comfortable are you doing the stuff that other people don’t have to know about,” Gillen said. “It doesn’t matter how tall you are, it doesn’t matter how strong you are…hard work beats talent every day.”
‘Small, Mighty’ National Title Contenders
Jill Gillen isn’t the only undersized player on the Razorback squad. Arkansas’ second leader in kills is Taylor Head, who stands at only 5-foot-10 and plays the same position as Gillen.
Her story mirrors Gillen’s. “Jason just told me straight up: I don’t care that you’re small,” said Head in a recent episode of the Hogpod, “I think you can get the job done. I love the way you play. I love your heart. I want to offer you a scholarship.’ and I took it.”
In fact, head coach Jason Watson is known for taking undersized outside hitters. “I like to say Jason has a type when he recruits outside hitters. We’re all short, gritty… He has a type for sure,” Head said.
Watson’s Razorbacks have four outside hitters all under 6 feet tall. Where other SEC teams are looking for hitters who are 6-foot-4, Watson prizes heart over all.
Zoi Evans is Arkansas volleyball’s tallest player at 6-foot-4, but doesn’t feel that way. “I may be the tallest, but the people around me make me feel small because they’re mighty. I have some small, mighty people around me,” said Evans to Volleyballmag.com.
And mighty they have been. The Razorbacks won 25 matches this season and finished tied for second in the SEC. They earned a 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, which starts tonight. For the first time since 2006, postseason volleyball is being played at Barnhill Arena.
“I think we’ve recruited really good people who happen to be really good volleyball players,” Watson said of the team’s early success. “I think we’ve tried really hard as a staff to get out of their way, allow them to go be great and not put any limits on them in our gym.”
The Arkansas volleyball regular season is over, but they start their attempt at a national championship at 7 p.m. CT Friday. The match will be broadcast on ESPN+ and tickets can be purchased here. They will face Stephen F. Austin and, if they win, they’ll get to play at Barnhill again on Saturday night against either TCU or 6 seed Florida State.
How to Watch Arkansas vs Stephen F. Austin
Date: Friday, Dec. 1
Time: 7 p.m. CT
Location: Barnhill Arena (Fayetteville, Ark.)
*Winner gets winner of TCU-Florida State on Saturday*
Arkansas Volleyball Stat Leaders
- Kills/set: Jill Gillen | 4.15 | 461
- Assists/set: Hannah Hogue | 11.27 | 1251
- Digs/set: Courtney Jackson | 3.97 | 441
- Blocks/set: Zoi Evans | 1.09| 117
- Aces/set: Jill Gillen | 0.43 | 48
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