4,489 — That’s how many miles are between Baton Rouge and Ka’a’awa, Hawaii, the hometown of freshman outside hitter Paige Hilliard.
And no two places could be more different from each other. From the population — (Baton Rouge’s 227,715 to Ka’a’awa’s 1,379) to food to the temperature, the two are polar opposites.
"The weather [is so different]," Hilliard said. "It is hot in Hawaii, but there’s a lot of trade winds. It’s really tropical. Here, it’s hot, humid, stagnant. It’s nothing too terrible, but it’s definitely been a change."
After joking about destroying the pronunciation, Hilliard said she always heard from her parents about how good the "down-home Southern food" was, but it was amazing to finally experience it herself. She tried everything from crawfish etóuffée and beignets to her personal favorite: shrimp and grits.
Despite all the differences, Hilliard said one distinct similarity drew her to continue her volleyball career at LSU.
"Coming from Hawaii, I had a really close-knit community, and a lot of people that I depended on," Hilliard said. "Whenever we came to LSU on my unofficial visit, I had a chance to meet the players, meet the coaches and see the community around LSU. I fell in love. It’s a community very similar to Hawaii, very family-oriented, very team-for-team. It’s something that I definitely knew that I could transition to."
That transition was made easier by the community and family-like atmosphere around the team. Senior defensive specialist Katie Kampen said the entire team knows that moving away from home can be tough, but everybody is available to confide in each other.
"I think anyone coming from that far, not just Hawaii but even California, and for some people far is like Mississippi or Florida, but I think it takes a certain level of maturity," Kampen said.
"Paige certainly has that [maturity], but the rest of our team is so family-oriented, we’re like a bunch of sisters."
Hilliard echoed that sentiment, emphasizing Kampen’s leadership abilities on and off the court.
"I could not have asked for a more welcoming community," Hilliard said. "For a better group of people to be around, and for better leaders. I mean we have Katie Kampen. There is no one better to be surrounded with than the girls that I have."
Hilliard not only went through cultural adjustments off the court, but also important volleyball adjustments as she’s become acquainted to Baton Rouge.
In Hawaii, average people and volleyball players alike are much shorter than in mainland America. At 5-foot-10-inches, Hilliard was one of the tallest on both her club and high school teams. At LSU, she is solidly in the middle of the pack.
"Whenever I came here and I see teammates that I have are 6-5 I’m just like ‘Wow, that’s what height looks like,’" Hilliard joked.
"In a way, we’re very defense- oriented [in Hawaii] because we know whenever we go to play mainland team they’re going to be bigger, they’re going to be more physical, so we have to defend our side of the court. It’s been really interesting being able to get on the more offensive side of the ball and stop people at the net rather than having to defend in the back row."
As with any freshman adapting to the college game in any sport, there was a learning curve for Hilliard around the pace of the game at the collegiate level.
Coach Fran Flory has always had high expectations for every recruiting class and throws them into the deep end as soon as they step on campus. She pushes them as far as they can go to understand if they can be successful and impactful in their freshman season.
"I think Coach Fran has really been a helping hand in making me understand college volleyball," Hilliard said. "You have to be able to get into a tempo with your program very quickly. She’s been very vocal, trying to help me understand the new tempos, how to connect with setters, how to get the tempo on digs and stuff. It’s almost as if I’m relearning the entire sport."
Flory’s desire for her players to succeed both in volleyball and outside of the sport, illustrates the familial culture around LSU. Her personal motto for the volleyball program is that "people are the product." She works to make sure each player is a better person when they walk out of the PMAC at the end of their senior season.
"I think the end goals is similar to a normal family would be ,and that drives the culture," Flory said.
While being away from the people that have been a part of her life for 17 years was a huge decision to make, she has no doubt she made the right one. Sometimes it still doesn’t even seem real.
"I think the true excitement started at the Purple and Gold Scrimmage because that was our first time being able to play on the LSU home court and get our faces up on the screen and have our families out in the crowd," Hilliard said. "That was probably the moment I realized that this was all real."