Growing up with a younger sibling can be a blessing and a curse.
Always having someone to play with and talk to is great, but the concept of sharing rooms, toys, clothes and attention can be irritating. The frustration continues as the younger sibling tries to emulate the older one, following his or her every move and copying every hobby, every phrase, every thing.
There are always exceptions to this rule, however, and one of the biggest is the effervescent sister duo of senior Alli Hillgren and freshman Carolyn Hillgren, two of the USC women’s volleyball team’s defensive specialists.
Hailing from a sports-loving family in San Diego, the girls began their volleyball journeys at Rancho Santa Fe Elementary School, where a program called Breakfast Volleyball Club allowed them to get to school early and learn to play the game with their friends.
“We definitely agree that’s where we started to love the game,” Carolyn said. “We just showed up and had fun. We were learning the game without even knowing it.”
Maturing faster than most middle school athletes, Alli and Carolyn had to make the first difficult choice of their athletic careers early on — choosing between sports.
“We had to make a choice in middle school of whether we wanted to play soccer or volleyball,” Carolyn said. “It was weird having to make a decision about college play when we were so young.”
They both went to Francis Parker High School, a private school near Downtown San Diego, where they had the chance to play for a gold- and bronze-medal Olympian, Eric Sato. They were both recruited to USC in their junior years and continued the Trojan tradition in their family.
“We come from a huge USC-based family,” Alli said. “Fourteen of my relatives came to USC before Carolyn and [me], so we’re the 15th and 16th people in our family to be Trojans.”
With so much family bonding, it’s hard to believe that the Hillgren sisters ever compete with each other for much, but their positions on the court are certainly a place where the stakes are high.
Alli is this year’s libero for the Women of Troy, a back row position that specializes in defensive strategy and serve-receiving, and Carolyn, following her older sister’s lead, is looking at the prospect of one day becoming a libero.
“Alli’s been here four years and is our libero,” USC coach Mick Haley said. “She does a great job as libero and a great job as co-captain.”
With only one libero a season, it becomes a right of passage when the position is handed off after a senior leaves the team, and Carolyn, along with the rest of the defensive specialists on the team, is waiting for the chance to fill the role Alli will leave vacant after this year.
“[Carolyn and I] do compete for the same position,” Alli explained. “But we’re blessed because we’re only two and a half years apart, but we’re three grades different, so we’re not directly competing, which is nice because we’re sisters. We don’t want to bite each other’s heads off.”
Haley said Alli makes sure not to be an overbearing older sibling.
“Alli’s been really good to let Carolyn have her own personality. She’s not giving Carolyn extra support. She supports all the players on the team, and I think that’s how Carolyn would like it.”
Carolyn explains that although Alli is her sister, she does not receive special treatment.
“I don’t think I have a leg up of getting the position,” Carolyn said. “When she’s gone and the position is open, it is going to have to be earned and I’m going to have to fight for it, because there’s a lot of talented girls on the team.”
Although Carolyn’s journey at USC is just beginning, Alli’s is coming to an end, and this year is bringing uncertainty to the college senior. As a business major, Alli’s focus is split between real estate and volleyball, although she is unsure which is right for her just yet.
“There’s a lot of doors that are open, I just haven’t decided which one to walk through yet,” Alli said. “It depends where I’m at; it depends where my body is at, and it depends if I still have a need to play.”
Fall is a crazy time for the volleyball team, and with the traveling, studying and playing, it is hard to have a regular life. But Alli and Carolyn make do, focusing on the road ahead and the promise that spring will give them time to have a normal college experience.
“It’s hard for us to have a social life during the season,” Alli said. “You just set your priorities. We’re doing something to honor the school, but there are parts of our life that take a toll. But we’re lucky because we’re involved with Theta, so that gives us an opportunity to branch out.”
As the season comes to an end, the girls are looking forward to getting back to a slower schedule with more time to see friends, spend time with family in San Diego and ride their horses when they have a free weekend.
The Hillgrens seem more like friends than sisters, although Haley says they are known to jokingly poke fun at each other off the court.
Both girls are supportive of each other’s play and focused on improving their game together, while working on their individual goals simultaneously.
Carolyn has followed in the footsteps of her older sister, perhaps as an indication of how much she admires Alli, yet the two of them managed to find their calling for the sport while playing and learning together. Though Alli may have had to share her toys and her parent’s affection, you cannot trace a bit of tension with her sister.
It just shows what she has learned in her leadership role, and why Carolyn would want to follow.