“I’m really grateful to have had experiences this past semester that have shown me that I’m more than an athlete”, Tillman said. “Being a student-athlete gives you a lot of experiences that can really set you up in your professional life; it’s such a privilege.”
It’s hard to imagine the amount of success that the Louisville volleyball program has had over the past couple seasons without players like Amaya Tillman. After all, she has played a significant role in the Cardinals’ success since 2019. What if I told you that her journey to the Derby City was an improbable one? The Topeka, Ks. native wasn’t very familiar with the program nor the city, until she got a call from Dani Busboom Kelly.
“I didn’t visit any ACC schools besides Louisville, and that ended up being one of my last recruiting visits”, Tillman admitted. “The only reason I chose to visit was because of Dani Busboom Kelly; I knew her from going to Nebraska camps when I was younger. When she got the Louisville job, I was one of the first people she called. I was pretty skeptical about Louisville because I had never really heard of the school, which is crazy to even think about now. I wasn’t even planning on going on visit, but Dani was really trying to convince me, telling me that the program was a hidden gem. When I got on campus, I just got this sense that this was where I was meant to be.”
Tillman stepped foot on campus prior to the 2019 season, and the rest was history. After helping the Cardinals knock off Texas in the NCAA tournament in her freshman campaign, she continued to progress each and every season. In 2021, Louisville went on a historic run by going undefeated in the regular season and making the Final Four for the first time in program history. Tillman was recognized as an All-ACC Second-Team selection while also being named ACC Scholar Athlete of the Year. However, the job wasn’t finished.
“When we lost to Wisconsin, and were so close to going to the final, it definitely left a bitter taste in our mouths”, Tillman explained. “It made us grind even harder to get there again and have another opportunity and ultimately go a step further. I’m very thankful for our coaches for placing us with a strong mentality and just making sure we’re staying on track so that we could get there again.”
With a target on their backs, the Louisville volleyball team lost Anna DeBeer to injury in an early season match against Stanford. The Cardinals eventually got the All-American back towards the end of the regular season, but the adversity challenged the team and Kelly’s squad rose to the occasion. Another ACC title, more all-ACC and national accolades, and a back-to-back Final Four appearance. After winning a five-set Elite Eight thriller against Oregon in a packed KFC Yum! Center, the stage was set in Omaha for a primetime showdown with newly-formed rival Pittsburgh. On the biggest stage, Louisville defeated the Panthers in an instant classic.
“As I like to say, Louisville is a volleyball school now”, Tillman said. “The Pittsburgh match was really cool; I think everyone was really pumped up for it. At least for our team. I didn’t feel any nerves or anything going into that game, just because we played them twice in that season. As an athlete when you’re in big moments like that, you don’t really hear the crowd. But whenever we rotated out, it’s crazy how much I realized the crowd was into it. I kind of love that we took it to five sets just to show both of the teams’ strengths and how much both we compete. It was one of my favorite matches of the season and playing against Pitt is one of my favorite matchups ever. It’s kind of like a big conference rivalry. I respect them a lot as a program.”
It’s no secret that volleyball fandom within the Louisville community has grown tremendously over the past couple years; many home matches this season were sold out. However, one exact game stood out to Tillman.
“I think one my favorite highlights of this past season was when we played in the Yum Center against Notre Dame in the regular season”, she said. “Seeing so many people show up for a conference game on a weeknight was amazing. (The volleyball fandom has) evolved over my four years here, and it’s wild to hear people say that they can’t even get into games because they’re sold out. I love it.”
It didn’t take Tillman long to realized that the increased support wasn’t just a local trend, but a national phenomenon. Fans from all across the country tuned in to watch the Cardinals show out on a consistent basis. “When I was in back home in Kansas, this little girl and her mom came up and told me that they were huge Louisville fans. They didn’t even know that I was from Kansas, but they loved Louisville volleyball. and bought ESPN plus just to watch our last few games”, she added.
Tillman’s journey to Louisville was a fruitful one for her volleyball career, to say the least. With that being said, it can be argued that the path was just as significant for her professional aspirations. Tillman graduated with her degree in sports administration and is currently in graduate school in College Student Personnel. She hopes to one day work with student-athletes at Louisville on their leadership skills while also assisting in career development.
Tillman’s message to the fanbase, her coaching staff, and the university as a whole is one filled with immense gratitude and appreciation.
“To the fans, thank you so much for supporting Louisville volleyball and being with us on this crazy journey”, she said. “We really couldn’t do it without you. I know that every athlete says that, but it’s true. To my coaches, thank you for pushing me to be a better player each year. I’m so thankful to have Dani and I have truly nothing but good things to say about the coaching staff. I’ve met so many great people here. I’m thankful for the program and the university as a whole for the opportunities that were given to me and the people that I’ve met.”
It’s crazy to think about how one decision to visit the school created an unexpected legacy. A two-time ACC Defensive Player of the Year, the 6-foot-3 middle blocker finishes her career ranking in top-5 in program history for blocks (510). The program and the fanbase will miss her dearly; she’ll now be in the stands, being the biggest fan for a program that she helped transformed. After all, make no mistake about it; the story that is the golden era of Louisville volleyball couldn’t be told without Amaya Tillman.