Feature: Rachel Hill living out ‘storied career’ in women’s soccer

UConn junior forward Rachel Hill away from a Syracuse defender during the Huskies' game at Joseph J. Morrone Stadium in Storrs, Connecticut on Sept. 3. 2015. (Jason Jiang/The Daily Campus)

When UConn women’s soccer won the American Athletic Conference tournament championship last November, it was a moment of total elation for many of the players. But for at least one of the Huskies, it allowed a sigh of relief.

Just minutes earlier in penalty kicks, then-sophomore forward and the team’s leading goal-scorer Rachel Hill missed a shot that would have given UConn a 2-0 advantage over the South Florida Bulls.

“My head went straight down,” Hill said. “I was just like, ‘It’s gonna be all my fault.’”

Her teammates comforted her as she walked back, saying they would not have made it as far as they did without her help.

“We’ll make up for it,” Hill recalled one of them telling her. Her head slowly came back up and she fully believed the Huskies were still in it.

The Bulls converted the next shot, tying it up at one. The pressure was on, but senior midfielder Gabrielle Charno found an answer and the Huskies retook the lead, 2-1. 

After South Florida tied it again on the next shot, junior transfer Megan Hunsberger had a chance to put UConn in position to win. Hunsberger placed her shot perfectly, giving the Huskies a 3-2 lead. The Bulls faced their last chance to stay alive, but UConn’s sophomore goalkeeper Emily Armstrong dived to make the save and win the title.

The Huskies had finally won a conference tournament championship for the first time since 2004 all while Hill watched from the sideline. It was no longer about any one player’s effort. It was about the team.

For the Rollinsford, New Hampshire native who grew up building forts in the woods, skiing and snowboarding in the mountains and scoring an incalculable number of goals along the way, Hill found a team in Storrs that would not only support her when she’s scoring, but also pick up the slack when she isn’t.

Hill came into the 2015 season with a mentality that she could score a significant number of goals and create opportunities for her teammates to do the same.

“Anyone really can step up in any game this year,” Hill said.

This belief took time to develop, especially when considering her New Hampshire roots – a state not known for producing many soccer stars. She was certainly one of the state’s standout players.

Hill has been playing soccer for as long as she can remember. Her family’s passion for the sport, particularly the passion of her father, Mike, created opportunities for her to become the player she is today.

The earliest memories she can recall involve frantically running around on the field in recreational league soccer, a team her father coached. She remembers the yellow uniforms more than anything else.

Hill started to view the sport more seriously around 9 years old when she played on an all-boys indoor soccer team.

“I started to realize, I’m playing with the boys,” Hill said. “I need to be good, or else I’m going to get crushed.”

Hill played on the team with her older brother, Zach, with her father once again as the coach. Zach is now a senior at the Air Force Academy and a three-year starter at forward for its men’s soccer team.

In one memorable indoor league game, Hill’s younger brother, Jake, had the opportunity to play. Zach and Rachel scored, but Jake’s shot bounced off the goalkeeper’s head and away from the goal.

“That’s one thing I’ll never forget,” Hill said. “Playing with both of my brothers, and my dad as the coach, my mom on the sidelines – my whole family pretty much was there.”

Members of the UConn women's soccer team celebrate with forward Rachel Hill (far right) after her late game winner against Harvard on Sunday, Sept. 6, 2015. (Amar Batra/The Daily Campus)

As Hill’s talent became more apparent, she began playing with the U.S. Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program in New Hampshire. 

Hill quickly made the transition from the state team in New Hampshire to one of the program’s regional teams. Following that, she was called up to the U-14 national pool, though she was ultimately not selected.

By the time she reached high school, her skillset had developed beyond most of the players in her state. Playing for the Somersworth High School girls soccer team in New Hampshire’s Division III presented unique set of challenges in that regard.

Starting in Hill’s sophomore year, she felt an increased frustration with her teammates. She believed she was capable of achieving much more on the field than she was, but opportunities were limited by the talent around her.

Hill’s father sat her down and had a “long talk,” telling her she needed to make high school competition about having fun, not necessarily about winning.

“I had to remind myself I can’t get frustrated,” Hill said. “These girls don’t play to hopefully play in college. They’re just playing for fun.”

When she graduated in 2013, she left the state with the all-time record in goals scored, recording 151 goals in her four years at Somersworth.

After school soccer ran its course in the fall, Hill always had club soccer waiting in the spring. However, club soccer never took priority over her other school sports. Hill credits competing in girls basketball in the winter and track in the spring as helping to keep her from experiencing “burnout” that affects many athletes.

“Even though my club did play in the winter, it was basketball first, then if you could make it to soccer after, then you could go to soccer,” Hill said. “When basketball came around, I was always so excited. And when track came around, I was always pumped for that.”

Despite taking a backseat to school sports, Seacoast United still gave Hill a chance to shine on a national stage. Hill won two Super Y League North American championships during her time competing, the first in 2009 with the U-14 team and the second in 2011 with the U-16 team.

Though her team never won a New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association state championship, Hill’s individual accomplishments drew the attention of collegiate women’s soccer programs across the country. Beginning her sophomore year of high school, Hill’s father helped her look at programs in the region.

“I just didn’t want to go too far, but I didn’t want to stay too close,” Hill said. “I wanted to jump into a program that wasn’t the top dog, but was still a quality program.”

Hill looked at UConn, Penn State, Seton Hall, James Madison, along with about a half-dozen others. UConn became the clear favorite when Penn State shifted its focus to recruiting defenders that year.

The decision practically made itself. Hill would arrive in Storrs for the beginning of 2013 season.

Transitioning to collegiate play was no easy task, and Hill still grapples with the rigor of the game. This season, Hill found herself in a five-game scoring drought during one of the most crucial stretches on the schedule. In losses to No. 25 Rutgers and No. 18 South Florida, she could not snap the scoreless streak.

“I always need to make sure I’m having fun with it still, and it’s not something I’m going out there to do just because,” Hill said. "Sometimes when I’m having rough times, I need to remind myself, ‘You’re out there because you love it.’ ... Over five games, I kind of did lose confidence in myself.”

Hill said she turned to her teammates and her coaches for support during the slump. The most significant effort they made was to remain positive, according to Hill. Before last Sunday’s game against UCF, Hill and junior forward Stephanie Ribeiro spent hours together watching tape to try and pick out the minute flaws contributing to the problem.

And the two certainly found something during the film session. Hill went on to score two goals against the Knights, including the game-winner in the 81st minute to give UConn its first conference win of the season.

Just two years earlier, she would have struggled to accomplish the feat. Hill arrived in Storrs as a raw talent, a player with a high ceiling but needing further development. The strength and size of collegiate players dwarfed anything she experienced in New Hampshire. She had a lot of catching up to do.

“I hadn’t touched a weight in my life,” Hill said. “That was a big difference for me – how strong players were. ... You’re not here to waste your time. You’re here if you love it and you really want to do well with it.”

Hill challenged herself to improve every game during her freshman campaign, scoring a team-high 13 goals and adding five assists. However, the Huskies would fall short of reaching the NCAA Tournament after an early exit in the conference tournament quarterfinals, falling to South Florida 4-1.

During the offseason, Hill had the opportunity to sharpen her skills on one of the biggest stages in the sport. She received an invitation to play with U-20 women’s soccer national team, though there was no guarantee she would make it on the final roster.

The competition proved too tough. Hill missed the cut.

She found herself stuck in the states as the team prepared to travel to Canada for the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup. All she could do now is get ready for UConn’s preseason training in August.

Then, something unexpected happened. On July 28, 2014, the U.S. U-20 team announced it was calling up Hill after Boston College forward McKenzie Meehan suffered an injury. Hill had just one week to pack her bags and join the team in Edmonton, Canada for the group stages. She described the entire experience as being “crazy.”

Hill played her first international minutes in 1-0 victory over Brazil in group play, coming in as a substitute late in the game.

“The competitive level is so high,” Hill said. “Competing against all the different countries is pretty cool, and (so is) speaking different languages on the field.”

Returning to Storrs with an unforgettable experience, she began her sophomore season with high expectations.

Hill started in all 23 games, scored 16 goals and added three assists – one of the best single-season performances in team history. She scored the game-winning goals in the conference tournament quarterfinals and semifinals.

But despite singlehandedly bringing the team all way to the conference tournament championship game, the missed penalty kick still haunts her.

“I’ll never forget missing my PK,” Hill said.

The miss continues to serve as a reminder for Hill that she can always turn to her teammates.

Following the win in the conference title game, UConn advanced to the NCAA Tournament and recorded a 2-0 victory over New Hampshire in the first round. 

Despite having the momentum on their side, the Huskies fell in the second round to the team that passed over Hill in recruiting three years earlier, Penn State. The 1-0 loss proved to be especially bitter, as the defensive players recruited instead of Hill held her scoreless throughout the game.

But she had to look ahead. Getting UConn back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010 was an accomplishment enough in itself.

Setting goals for her junior year has been a simple affair. Hill and the rest of the team want to win repeat as conference champions, but also win the conference regular season title. More importantly, they want to advance past the NCAA Tournament second round and into the Sweet Sixteen – maybe even deeper into the tournament than that.

Where Hill said she didn’t know what to expect in her first two years, the expectations for this season could not be any clearer. But while the bar might be set higher, some things are still the same – like the consistent presence of her father in her soccer career.

Just because Hill’s father couldn’t be her coach anymore hardly meant he would not still have a role to play. Hill’s parents have attended nearly every home game since she arrived in Storrs two years ago and are even traveling to many road games this season.

Hill said he always has a word of advice or a tip for every game. Most recently, it has been a simple message: “Get a goal for me.”

On Sunday against UCF, she gave him two.

Whether the No. 20 Huskies achieve all the goals they have set for this season or fall short, there is no doubt Hill is living out a storied career with a storied program at UConn.


Kyle Constable is a staff writer for the sports section, covering UConn women's soccer. He can be reached via email at kyle.constable@uconn.edu. He tweets @KyleConstable.