During the Newton Lady Rams’ Tuesday bounce back win over Rockdale County — 24 hours after a loss to Fayette County in the MLK Classic — coach Tiffani Johnson began to name names of those who gave her squad a particular spark.
The first name she gave may have been one she didn’t expect to call at the beginning of the season.
“When you talk about people I’m really proud of on this team, I have to say Rachel Hilliard,” Johnson said.
The sophomore post player has emerged quickly as one of No. 7 Newton’s biggest and best threats in the paint and on the low block. But the place where she’s really excelling has Johnson particularly excited.
“It’s her defense,” Johnson said. “She’s done a great job on the boards, and just her defense. She’s just really an improving player. And the thing about her, this is just her second year playing basketball, ever.”
Hilliard’s emergence is pretty substantial, considering her extremely limited experience in the game.
“She didn’t make any of the middle school teams,” Johnson said. “She was on JV last year. This is her first year on varsity now, and she’s definitely stepping up. She’s a big presence inside that we’ve really been missing.”
Hilliard has come close to a double-double in points and rebounds a couple of times this season. She’s scored in double figures in several games, and even though scoring is something she prides her self in, defensive success is an even greater point of satisfaction for her.
“I want to average 10 points and 10 rebound a game,” Hilliard said. “That’s a goal of mine. But what I’m really working on right is my defense and boxing out, and just being able to get back on defense. Defense is what’s kind of helping us right now. I lock down on defense because defense is what wins games.”
Hilliard’s tenacity is what has won her playing time even as a sophomore for a Class AAAAAAA top 10 squad, even though she didn’t really come into high school thinking she would be in this position.
“I never thought I’d be starting on varsity in basketball this soon,” she said.
She said she really didn’t want to try out, fearing that she wouldn’t make it. But she got some helpful peer pressure that turned out to be key in her making a great decision.
“In ninth grade, I didn’t want to do it, but my best friend said she’d try out with me,” Hilliard said. “I tried out and made JV and was like, ‘Okay, cool. At least I made.’ But the summer came, I improved on my defense a lot more. I lost 10 pounds and did a lot of conditioning. I’ve lost 22 pounds so far, and I’m just improving in a lot of ways I didn’t know I could.”
Johnson began to believe that Hilliard could do it when she started showing maximum effort and asking the right questions.
“She wants it,” Johnson said. “She’s a hard worker. She’s one of the kids that’s in PE class actually working. If she could stay late, she would. If she can come early, she will. She wants the (playing time). She’s a kid who gets it. She asked us how can she get more playing time, and we showed her and now she’s trying to do it.”
Hilliard also credits the influence of other team leaders, both current and past, for helping her develop. She sees where they are and where others have been, and the kind of influence they have on the team, and has made it her goal to replicate it.
And while the 5-foot-8 post player hasn’t fallen in love with the game enough to want to be a pro player, she definitely has aspirations to be a difference maker in high school and beyond.
“I don’t want to be a WNBA player, but I sure want to play in college,” Hilliard said. “I’m trying to get to a point where when I’m a senior, I can become kind of a team captain and lead the team, and things of that nature. I want to become a true post player.”
She said she plans to do that by “losing 10 or 15 more pounds” in order to get stronger and more agile. Her early success wasn’t on her radar two years ago, but now that she’s getting used to it, it’s motivating her to pursue more.
“I look at where I am and I feel like I’m getting somewhere,” she said. “I’m just gonna keep on pushing, even watching other varsity players and seeing how they do things. That’s what keeps me going. I never thought I could do this, but now that I am I just want to get better. I’m trying my hardest.”