At Humboldt State, Hilliard joined a volleyball club and shopped around for a collegiate scholarship. He thought he had landed one at George Mason in Fairfax, Va., but a visit there turned him off.
"I walked to their volleyball practice with six feet of snow on the ground," he said. "I was not used to that environment."
In January of 1989, while playing in a club tournament at UC Santa Barbara, Hilliard caught Ratelle's eye.
"I saw a kid that had a lot of physical talent, a lot of athletic ability and a good right arm," Ratelle said. "But I thought no way in the world would he end up as good as he has become."
Nevertheless, when Ratelle heard through the grapevine that Hilliard had approached UC Irvine about transferring there, he called Hilliard and offered him a full scholarship.
Hilliard's progress in the game has been phenomenal.
Sturm said: "What catches my eye about him is that he is relatively young, new to the sport, yet he has come such a long way."
Sturm said Hilliard will be given a fair shot later this spring at winning back his spot on the national team, currently held by veteran Bob Samuelson. But it won't be easy.
"He's going to get a tryout," Sturm said. "Just like everyone else, he'll be battling for a position."
As for a shot at making the Olympic team, Hilliard said he would be disappointed if he failed.
"But I'm young," he said. "There's always 1996."
And, of course, his senior season next year with the 49ers.