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Redshirt junior Black balances field hockey, academics

Junior Field Hockey player Rachel Black is preparing to graduate early and attend pharmacy school
Junior Field Hockey player Rachel Black is preparing to graduate early and attend pharmacy school

Though she has one year of eligibility remaining, Black plans on leaving UNC after this season to go to pharmacy school. She’s always loved math and science, and knows her education has prepared her for when she graduates.

But that’s not on her mind now. She has a few thank yous to give before she goes.

Black began her speech thanking everyone from behind the scenes: Yunah and Amy, the student assistants. Kelsee the nutritionist. Tony the academic adviser or, as Black prefers, “life coach.” The list goes on and on.

Honoring those behind the scenes comes naturally for Black. As a walk-on in a program consistently competing for national championships, she knows what it’s like to be a smaller piece of a much bigger operation.

“As a redshirt, you’ve got a spot,” Black said. “But every day you have to show up and show people why you’re here.

“You have to make it clear you’re here for a reason and you want to get better.”

The walk-on experience

Black began her field hockey career early, taking it up in third grade when it was brought to her hometown of Clemmons.

“It was her sport,” her mother Tracy Black said. “She tried other sports — soccer, softball and basketball — but nothing kept her attention like field hockey.”

Rachel Black played field hockey at West Forsyth High School, making varsity as a freshman and racking up the school’s career goals record and three all-state selections in her four years in the Titan program.

But North Carolina field hockey is a little bit different from field hockey in more established locales.

Club field hockey teams are not as established in North Carolina like they are elsewhere in the country. While athletes in the Northeast had teams right around the corner, Black had to travel to Charlotte, about an hour and half away from home, to practice with her club team, the Charlotte Ambush, in order to compete at the top tournaments.

Despite her dominance in high school, Black failed to generate much top-level recruiting interest.

“When you put her up with girls who were born with a stick in their hands, it was much more competitive,” Tracy Black said.

Rachel Black did garner some looks from smaller Division I schools, but she had her mind set on playing for the Tar Heels.

“I looked at schools that wanted me for field hockey and I didn’t really want to go there academically, and schools for academics that I didn’t want to play field hockey at,” Black said. “(UNC) had both. It was a perfect match.”

Black attended summer camps at UNC her junior and senior year of high school, where she reached out to the coaching staff to show her interest in walking on.

“She initiated all of (the recruiting contact),” Coach Karen Shelton said. “We didn’t know that much about her.”

Black impressed the coaches enough to earn an offer.

Make it into the school on your own and we’ll have a spot for you on the team.

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“I was like OK, that sounds like a challenge for sure, but something that I was willing to do to be able to do both athletics and academics,” Black said.

Making the team

Black is now known as one of the top players in fitness training on the team, but that wasn’t always the case. She showed up after her redshirt season “kinda unfit” in the words of Shelton. Black was almost cut from the team right then and there.

“Coming in out of shape wasn’t one of my best moves,” Black said.

Shelton and Black had a talk shortly after she arrived that changed Black’s perspective on the workouts.

“I said, ‘Look, you haven’t demonstrated you want to be on this team,’” Shelton said. “And ever since that moment, she’s been one of the hardest workers.”

Fitness has been a point of pride for Black, as she knows it’s something she can do to get better and get more minutes on the field. She also had some upperclassmen when she was younger push her in those aspects, so she tries to do the same for her teammates now.

“She’s awesome in the weight room and fitness, just pushing everyone to do their best all the time,” redshirt sophomore teammate Sam Night said.

While Black has steadily increased her minutes on the field since she walked on, her dedication to interests and academics off the field is where she’s truly made her mark on the program.

Black was a strong student coming into UNC, taking many AP courses throughout her time in high school. Balancing the academics at UNC with her athletic commitments was a challenge for Black when she first arrived on campus.

“It was a really huge adjustment for me, because you come in and you’re like ‘OK, I have all these things that I need to do for classes and also all these things I need to do for field hockey,’” Black said.

“If it’s a day off, then I’ll catch up on my academics and school work. If it’s a day where we have practice and a lift and workout, you have to focus on that that day.”

A self-described math and science person, Black is currently involved with the Dangl Lab for postdoc Tatiana Mucyn investigating plant microbiomes.

Balancing academic work with athletic commitments is difficult for every student athlete, and Black is no different with her lab position.

“I interviewed with five labs before I found one that would work with my practice schedule,” Black said. “Some days I go straight to the lab from practice, which is exhausting, but I am fortunate that Dr. Mucyn works with my schedule even though it is not ideal.”

The next step

Even with one year of eligibility left, Black decided to go ahead and graduate for pharmacy school.

Her mom said she only needs about two more credits to graduate, so there wasn’t much point in sticking around for much longer.

Black is excited for what the future holds.

“I think my academic skill set just fits really well into pharmacy school,” Black said. “I took organic chemistry and did well in that, and it feeds really well into pharmacy school.”

Shelton said she’ll look back on Black’s career fondly now that it’s nearly over.

“(She’s) everything you want,” Shelton said. “Her future is super bright. She’s always been a great student and now onto pharmacy school.

“It’s one of the great joys of coaching.”