The Lady Captain 

Senior Hillary Hager leads the women Commodores into the Sweet 16

Senior Hillary Hager leads the women Commodores into the Sweet 16

Losing badly to unranked Alabama for the sixth defeat of the season—and the third in a row—was the final straw for leaders of the Vanderbilt women's basketball team. The quietest one, co-captain Hillary Hager, walked into her coach's office and asked what else she could do to salvage the season.

Melanie Balcomb doesn't have to say that this 5-foot-11 senior, who came to Nashville to play for someone else, is one of her favorites. All she needs to say is that, like herself, Hager is a coach's kid, one of those athletes taught from the cradle to bleed Team, without a corpuscle of craving for Personal Glory. "She's old school," Balcomb says. "She works hard for everything she gets."

After the Alabama debacle, the two faced each other at a crossroads for each: a second-year coach still adapting to a high-expectation job, and a perfectionist pre-med student desperate to keep playing her sport in postseason. With characteristic directness, Balcomb told Hager what she had to do: surrender the one thing she hadn't yet given to Vanderbilt basketball. She had to open up and talk, Balcomb said. She had to challenge other players as much as she challenged herself.

"You gotta get out of your comfort zone."

It was the hardest thing she has ever had to do on the court, Hager says. "I'm not a very vocal or outspoken person," she reflects during a subdued interview with the Scene. "That's not how I am. But if they feel like I need to do that for the team, then I'm willing to do it."

For four years, Hillary Anne Hager of Franklin, Pa., 22-year-old daughter of Franklin High boys' basketball coach Bill Hager, has been willing to do anything for her team, and, albeit belatedly, this season is showing it big-time. An aggregation that six weeks ago seemed headed toward dead-end disaster has won the Southeastern Conference tournament championship and has landed the lady Commodores in the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16. (Sunday, the women will play the winner of Stanford and Oklahoma.)

The Commodores could have reached neither of these plateaus without Hager, though you'd never hear that from her. The senior guard/forward majoring in "interdisciplinary neuroscience" (i.e., the psychological and biological workings of the brain) is the unselfish embodiment of a lot more than a high-scoring, multi-rebounding ball-stealer.

"Hillary Hager is the personification of a student-athlete," Vanderbilt Chancellor Gordon Gee says from a business trip in South Korea. "She has excelled in the classroom and on the court in a way that is matched by few others." She also exemplifies the stressful effort required to be and do those things. In many more ways than one, she is this team's "unsung hero," Coach Balcomb says.

Hager's hard-driving friend ("like a sister") and fellow senior captain Jenni Benningfield, who was out for some of the season with a foot stress fracture and was only moderately effective for a while after returning, recently was named to the All-SEC second team, while freshman phenom Carla Thomas, who began asserting her intimidating talents more and more from mid-season on, was named to the third. The subtler skills of Hager went unrecognized, even though she scored just 19 fewer points than Benningfield and more than any other Commodore. Plus, her 1,109 minutes played were seventh most in the nation, 359 more than Benningfield's and 465 more than Thomas'.

Expect no tears, however, from Hillary.

"She doesn't care," laughs junior sharpshooter Abi Ramsey, Hager's roommate of two years. "She knows that to everyone on this team she's our captain, our leader. Even Jenni. Jenni's a captain too, but when it's all said, Hillary gets things done. She's our go-to person in any game situation. And she's always the one who's taking care of us, is responsible for us when we're out or on trips, and is like the final-decision maker. She's like the mom of the team."

At Vanderbilt, Hager has gotten big honors—awards for being the hardest worker and election as co-captain two years in a row. She hasn't gone completely unrecognized in the SEC, either. Three weeks ago, the conference named her winner of its Scholar Athlete of the Year Award.

Unfortunately, the honor was dispensed midway through the SEC Tournament, when everybody's attention was riveted on-court. Her achievement was thus grossly underheralded in a conference where other schools' athletic programs continually sweat accusations of academic fraud. They would have benefited hugely from her example.

Coach Balcomb, who says Vanderbilt's standards require rejection of 75 of every 125 players acceptable at other schools, confesses she worried beforehand that the honor might not go to her neuroscience scholar.

"Her GPA (3.2) was not the highest by any means," the coach says. "But they had a lot of respect for Vanderbilt and for her major, which is the toughest of anybody I've ever coached. I mean, you had some communication majors [competing for the award]. You also have to be a good player, and some of the other players who have 4.0s don't play and start like Hillary does for our team."

Hager exemplifies what Vanderbilt athletics has always claimed to be about—and certainly what fourth-year Chancellor Gee wants it to be about. "They are students first," he says. "This is a university, and education is our mission. Athletics is part of their education, and, for others, it may be arts, music, politics, whatever. But if it does not contribute to making our students leaders and citizens, then we shouldn't do it."

But nobody says being both is easy, and it hasn't been for Hager. Early on, her commitment to academics almost sank her career as a Commodore athlete.

Vanderbilt often seems to be a school that students and fans of other SEC institutions love to hate, ostensibly because it's stereotyped as a rich kids' campus. Hager admits having seen lists in which Vanderbilt parents rank among the wealthiest in the nation. These parents do not, however, include her own.

"My parents," she says with a wry smile, "are teachers."

Her undernoted accomplishments, both in the classroom and on the court, have been hard-won. In eighth grade and early high school, stress fractures in her legs required her to avoid most sports involving running—so she set still-unbroken school track and field records in such non-running events as the shot put and the discus throw. (Eventually, she also helped set a 1,600-meter relay record.)

Her ambition to become a doctor, originating in childhood, became stronger during late elementary and early high school when several physicians told her the pain in her legs was all in her mind. Because of that, she was in 10th grade before she got corrective surgery.

"That," she says, "kind of made me want to be a doctor more, to treat people with care and listen to their problems."

Despite the early leg deficiencies, Hager helped lead Franklin High's girls' basketball team to a 98-18 record in four years. She scored a school record 2,301 career points and in her senior season averaged 25 a game, along with 12 rebounds. Recruited by longtime Commodore women's coach Jim Foster, she came to Vandy and lit Nashville on fire, starting for the first half of her freshman season.

In the second half, however, she was abruptly benched and relegated to fewer and fewer playing minutes. The next year, she didn't start a game, and her minutes dwindled to single digits. It mystified Ramsey, who as a freshman got more playing time than sophomore Hager.

"In pickup games in the summer, I'd go, 'Whoa, this girl's really good,' " Ramsey says. "But then we got into the season, and Foster didn't play her. I don't know why."

Hager herself still seems a little puzzled but blames no one but herself. "I think I lost confidence in myself," she says. "Since then, I've learned that confidence is the most important and most fragile thing that there is to any athlete. If you don't have confidence, you don't have anything. I think that sums up what happened. There were a lot of other factors, but that's pretty much what it was."

There were unquestionably "other factors": scholastic ones. Later in the interview, she mentions that during her freshman season she had classes two days a week from 8 a.m. to 12:15 p.m., then a lab from 1 to 4 in the afternoon. The latter obviously infringed on practice hours. The academic pressure clashed with the athletic demands and took a toll on her.

But Hager always "knows what to do in situations," Ramsey says. Reducing her class hours by sacrificing vacations and going to summer school, she began relieving some pressure. In the gym, she kept working.

"I always said to myself, I'm not gonna not work even though I know I'm not gonna play," she says. "It was something I had to do for myself, just to prove that I was giving it my all."

Because of that, she eventually underwent one of the more remarkable transformations in recent Nashville sports history.

Her tireless labor during the sophomore doldrums and the summer afterward got her, on the threshold of her junior season, not only voted both the Bedford Hunter Loyalty Award and the Commodore Award for excellence on and off the court, it also got her elected to co-captain, along with the vaunted All American Chantelle Anderson and All SEC Ashley McElhiney. For someone who had played exactly one minute of the final game of her previous season, the honors were astounding.

She had extra incentive, though. Jim Foster had decamped for Ohio State. "With a new coach coming in, it was a fresh start," Hager recalls. Plus, it wasn't just any new coach. It was Melanie Balcomb of Xavier. Hager already knew that Balcomb liked her.

"I had tried to recruit both her and Benningfield when I was at Xavier," the coach says. She adds that she had followed Hager's Vanderbilt career and had wondered, like Ramsey, why she wasn't playing.

Hager knew that Balcomb had wanted her at Xavier, "and I think that probably helped her mentally," Balcomb explains. "I know she was very determined. In the summer before we came in, she worked out heavily, lost a lot of weight and was in awesome shape. That's the reason the players chose her as captain right away. What I saw was a very determined young lady who had made changes."

Ever since, the quiet one has been not only the team's foremost brain but a big part of its heart and soul.

Benningfield calls her "one of the most determined people I've ever met—and very inspirational. She has motivated me at times to not get down and to work harder." Ramsey says she has "never met anyone as focused in everything" as her roommate. Freshman point guard Dee Davis calls Hager "the mold of the team." Balcomb simply calls her its "glue."

But even this year, Hager had to be urged to shake off unselfishness and to shoot more. Before Ramsey was suspended during the first nine games of the season for violating team rules, Hager had been "our screen setter, role player and rebounder," Balcomb says. With Ramsey out, she called Hager in and said, 'You gotta be our shooter now—and keep doing all that other stuff.' "

Getting Hager to think about making a lot of points herself was tough, the coach recalls.

"She wasn't ready on the catch to shoot; she was ready to pass. We really worked hard on that, and there were games that I'd just have to scream at her numerous times, 'Shoot the ball!' "

The other day somebody gave Hager a newspaper clipping from early in the season. In the story, Balcomb recalled the problem.

"Yeah, I can't remember who we played now," Hager recalls with a smile. "We ran a certain play, and I came off the screen and didn't shoot it when I could've, and she ripped my face. The next time down, I definitely took the shot and hit it. We won the game, so that was good."

"She has played through that," Balcomb says. "She makes changes. She has a shooting mentality now that she didn't have before."

Ten years from now, Hager says, she'd like to be married, maybe have a couple of kids and her own medical practice and just "be settled." For the moment, though, she remains neck deep in the struggle to get there. Going into the first round of the NCAA Tournament last weekend, she had yet to learn whether her scholastic sweat had gotten her accepted at a medical school anywhere.

"I haven't really had time to think about it," she says. "Which is good."

She's focused right now on winning.

"That's another quality you get from a competitive, coaching family," Balcomb says. "It's not so much that you enjoy winning as that you just hate to lose.

"Hillary hates to lose."

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