Cross country star Rachel Hilliard excels in academics and athletics

By Jackson Alexander

Courtesy UMass Athletics

Massachusetts women’s track and field coach Julie LaFreniere received an e-mail in mid-March that perplexed her.

The e-mail, from the academic services within the athletic department, notified her that all women’s sophomore track and field athletes could sign up for fall courses.

But on this list was freshman cross country and track and field athlete, Rachel Hilliard.

LaFreniere assumed that a mistake was made. How could she not know the grade of one of her star runners?

So she shot back a response, informing them that Hilliard was only a freshman, and asked them to take her off the sophomore list.

Within minutes, the academic services responded and explained to LaFreniere that her inclusion in the e-mail was no mistake. Since Hilliard had taken a whopping 41 credits in her first year at UMass, she was technically considered a sophomore.

“I knew she was a great student … but I didn’t know how many credits she was carrying at the time,” LaFreniere said.

Hilliard grew up in Hookstown, Pa., where she attended the town’s public high school, South Side High School.

Just like at UMass, Hilliard excelled in the classroom. She was named Valedictorian of the Class of 2011.

She also excelled in athletics. Hilliard, who said she’s been running since seventh grade, holds track and field school records in the 400 meters, 800 meters, 1600 meters, 3200 meters, 4×400 meter relay and the 5k cross country course. She won a State Track Medal as a senior and State Cross Country Medals in her junior and senior year.

Hilliard’s academic excellence allowed her the luxury of choosing between some of the nation’s most prestigious schools. She picked UMass over Purdue University, Williams College and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and she enrolled as a  major in biology and enroll in the Commonwealth Honors College.

Hilliard arrived on campus with the intention of double-majoring in biology and animal sciences. However, she quickly learned that there was little overlap between the majors, and she decided to major in biology and minor in english.

She wants to become a vet someday, however, so she’s still taking specific animal science courses.

In addition to being in the Honors College, she was accepted to the Biological Sciences Tap program, which helps bring biology, biochemistry, microbiology and pre-med students together.

Most freshmen spend their first year in college getting accustomed to lecture-style classes and different grading systems. The minimum credits per semester is 12, and many students hover around that number.

Rachel Hilliard was not most freshmen.

Instead of easing her way into college, she burst out of the gates and tackled a schedule that most students, let alone student-athletes, couldn’t handle. Between regular classes and seminars, she took six classes and completed 19 credits in her first semester of college.

She easily could have used her packed first semester to scale back the number of credits in her second semester. But that wasn’t an option for Hilliard, who decided 19 credits wasn’t enough. Hilliard exceeded her first semester workload with 22 credits and seven classes in her second semester.

The volume of credits and classes she took in her freshman year didn’t affect her in the classroom as she received straight A’s in her first year and the vaunted 4.0 GPA.

“I’m not sure what Rachel’s doing would be attractive to a lot of athletes, not just at UMass, just in general,” LaFreniere said.

On an average day, Hilliard wakes up early for class at 8 a.m., and stays until her final class at 2:15 p.m. She then moves on to her commitments to athletics – cross country practice now, track and field in the winter and spring seasons – for the remainder of the afternoon.

Once Hilliard reaches her dorm at Grayson Hall in Orchard Hill, it’s right back to the grindstone for her with more homework.

“Rachel’s life is pretty much academics and athletics, which for most coaches, that’s what we’d like to see,” LaFreniere said.

When Hilliard isn’t studying for Calculus 233, or doing organic chemistry homework, she runs, and she runs well.

Her cross country highlights as a freshman included second place team finishes at the NCAA Regional Championships and A-10 Championships. Hilliard finished in the top four on her team in all seven of her meets.

Hilliard followed her cross country season by competing for the indoor track team. She qualified for the New England Championships in the 1000-meter run, and was part of a third place finish in the distance medley at the Go Rhody Invitational and a second place finish in the 4×800 meter relay at the Sorlein Invitational.

Despite the success, LaFreniere still noticed areas of improvement for Hilliard.

“[Last year] she would hold back a little bit, make sure she could finish the workout and then you would see her let it go the last mile,” LaFreniere said.

Last season, the Minutewomen were an average team by A-10 standards in both track and field and cross country. The cross country team finished 10th out of 14 teams in the A-10 Championships, while the track and field team took 8th out of 12 teams.

However, there was nothing average about their performance in the classroom.

Of the numerous trophies and certificates in LaFreniere’s office, the souvenir she shows with the most pride is last year’s NCAA Division 1 All-Academic team certificate.

“Rachel was a big part of this,” LaFreniere said.

The women’s track  field team’s 3.34 GPA placed them 46th in Division 1, and second in the Atlantic 10 behind Dayton (3.41). In addition, 19 members of the team were named to the last year’s Atlantic 10 Commissioner Spring Honor Roll, which recognizes student-athletes with GPAs of 3.5 or better.

“It is not easy being a student-athlete here,” LaFreniere said. “I tell my athletes, ‘You are not a regular student, your life is not going to be that of a regular student, you are at a different level.’”

Hilliard has started the cross country season off on the right foot. For the first time in her career, she was the top finisher for UMass in a meet. She led the Minutewomen in the New England Championships last Sunday and finished 80th overall out of 251 runners in the 5k race at Westfield.

“[This year] she’s taking more chances and she’s pushing herself harder,” LaFreniere said.

As Hilliard begins to think about the future, she’s come to two realizations: She wants to go to graduate school, preferably the University of Pennsylvania for their veterinary school program, and she wants to continue to run.

Hilliard even presented the possibility of redshirting a year so she could save a year of eligibility and run for a year at graduate school.

“I really love cross country,” Hilliard said. “I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t run. …Probably just go crazy.”

Or she might try to add another class to her schedule.

Jackson Alexander can be reached at [email protected]