When Rachael Bilney first mentioned her fraternal twin sister, whose nickname is “Sam, ” while being recruited by Richmond basketball coaches, she was told that there might be a place for Sam on the men’s team – that is, until they learned that her name was Samantha and their looks weren’t the only similar thing about them.
“Rachael told the coaches, ‘I have a twin—Sam’,” Sam said. “The coach that she was talking to said, ‘Well, we’ll have to talk to Coach Mooney.’ Then they found out that we were indeed girl twins, and that really changed things. It started being more of a package deal.”
The two sisters love and excel at the game of basketball. They came to Richmond during the summer of 2008 with two Division V State Championships for The Branson School in California under their belts. Athletics are in their genes—their mother, Jody Bilney, played tennis for Clemson and was ACC player of the year, their father, John Bilney, played basketball for Maryland.
“We’ve sort of been doomed for athletics,” Sam said. “But my mom’s the best athlete in the family by far.”
Now, five years and a saga of knee afflictions later, the two are playing in their last season together as fifth-year seniors. Sam has averaged 22 minutes in 106 games since 2008, and Rachael is 40 points away from scoring 1,000 points in a total of 118 career games.
“Injures is not a word that the two of them have ever been defined by,” Ryann Dannelly, a senior on the team, said. “In the four years that I have known them, they have continued to give everything within their will power to help our basketball program.”
The story behind their career on the court is not a simple or smooth one. The fraternal twins were born in Indiana, then moved to Texas, spent most of their middle and high school careers in California, and now reside in Florida.
“We were recruited out of California,” Sam said. “And we like to say that we’re from California because we moved to Florida about five days after graduating high school.”
The duo started thinking about college basketball during their sophomore and junior years of high school. Three priorities became clear—basketball, educations, and staying together. Knowing that they liked a small setting after going to a 300-person high school, Richmond found Rachael during the summer between her sophomore and junior year. Samantha missed recruiting season altogether because of her first and second knee injuries.
“We wanted to play together, that’s first and foremost,” Rachael said. “And our parents taught us from a very young age that being athletic will get you to a lot of places, but they always told us that one day it was going to end.”
After a terrible car accident severed their mother’s leg in college, she was back on the courts a year later. A bad injury stunted their father’s college athletic career as well, so although the Bilney sisters don’t let their injuries hold them back, both their parents’ and their own experiences have helped them keep things in perspective.
The Bilney parents made sure their daughters knew the importance of an education as a back-up to an athletic career that could stop as quickly as it started. Today, their mother Jody is the Chief Brand Officer and Executive Vice President of OSI Restaurant Partners and their father, John, is the President at R&S Sales and Marketing.
“A Richmond education, as we all know, speaks for itself,” Rachael said. “At Richmond, you get the Ivy League education but you’re competing in the A10, which is one of the top 10 conferences in the country. So, we got the balance that we were looking for.”
When it was made clear to Rachael’s perspective Richmond coaches that Sam was, indeed, a girl, Richmond invited them both to come visit the school and the current women’s basketball team. Rachael said that the coaches later told the girls they had not planned on offering the twins positions during the visit, but both girls flew back to California with scholarship and position offers.
“I got injured again my senior year, so Richmond recruited me blind and hadn’t seen me play yet,” Sam said. “But they knew they really wanted Rachael.”
Rachael adds that this was, “totally not normal.” However, by Christmas of their junior year, the women knew they would be Spiders. The jump from playing high school and college basketball was an adjustment for the duo, but not in the ways they had been expecting. The twins expected skill and talent levels to increase, as they went from being the best players to two among all of the best players.
“You are playing with eleven other people who were also the best players on their high school team,” Rachael said. “Bigger. Faster. Stronger. Everything.”
Still, the biggest change for Rachael was not the skill level of her teammates or her opposing players—rather, it was the amount of time her sister played their first year. Sam sat out a lot on high school, she said, and then was solo captain and averaged the most minutes on the team during her freshman year at Richmond.
“I was like, ‘wait I thought I was the one you recruited!’,” Rachael said.
For Sam, high school had not been about minutes played—it had been about her knee. After tearing her ACL completely in half during February of her sophomore year of high school, the only option was to get a “new” ACL altogether.
“You can either use your tissue or someone else’s tissue to restring an ACL through your knee,” Sam said. “The surgeon I was with at the time was with the Oakland Raiders. He was really big into using someone else’s tissue, so I had someone else’s Achilles tendon put in.”
The recovery for replacement-ACL surgery was faster, and Sam said she also wasn’t weakening herself a second time over by using tissue from her own hamstring or a patella in her knee. At the time, Rachael said, it was the up-and-coming surgery, the one that everyone in the medical field was talking about.
“Everyone was super pumped about using an Achilles from a cadaver,” Rachael said. “An Achilles is so much stronger than an ACL. That was the movement at the time.”
Both sisters hint at how rapidly that school of thought has changed.
Sam played her junior year of high school, and together with Rachael helped their high school win the state championship. The week before her senior high school season started, she tore her right ACL again.
“It was a bad fall and I’m sure I would have torn it regardless of what the doctors discovered years down the road,” Sam said. “But at that time, we thought we’d just get the same thing done.”
Sam recovered quickly and soon their team was making its run to states again.
“I was not going to miss this one,” Sam said. “I slapped a brace on, played, and we won states.”
The twins began their Spider basketball careers the summer after winning their second state championship. During one of their first games against Duquesne, Sam hit the ground—hard. Within moments Rachael knew what had happened to her sister—she had seen it twice before.
“The game went into overtime,” Rachael said. “I cried, I played every minute, and I cried every minute I was playing. We were running plays for me to shoot to win and I was sobbing. At the end of the game, I was a disaster and trying to help Sam to the locker room.”
During halftime, Rachael heard heckling from the stands, and said that, “luckily” Sam hadn’t. Rachael said that people had been shouting things such as, ‘Sweet knee brace’ and ‘I hope you tear your other ACL.’ On her way to the locker room with an injured Sam on her shoulder, Rachael saw the hecklers.
“I dropped Sam and ran up into the stands and blacked out,” Rachael said. “I said terrible, terrible things to them. I had to be physically removed from the stands, and my coach had to carry me to the locker room because I was so angry. I just strung together every curse word I could think of.”
After both girls recovered, they started their sophomore season with high hopes. Then, in October of 2009, Sam tore her right ACL—for the third time.
“We discovered that my body had rejected the Achilles heel that had been placed in my knee,” Sam said. “My tibia and femur had disintegrated around the screws.”
Her Achilles-acting-as-an-ACL wasn’t attached to anything, and had no bone holding it in place.
“It didn’t have to be a bad fall because her bones had literally disintegrated,” Rachael said. “There was nothing holding them together.”
Sam said that the doctors had been surprised an entire piece of bone in her knee hadn’t broken off. Her recovery process after this third tear was not brief—Sam said it took two back-to-back surgeries to fix her knee.
“It was a five-month recovery and then a six-month recovery,” Sam said. “They first placed putty-like stuff—with bits of bone in it—into the holes in my bones. They were really big holes unfortunately—my doctor stuck his thumb through my tibia during surgery.”
Junior year started and the twins were ready to play together for the first time since their freshman year season. But, this time, not Sam but Rachael’s knee proved them wrong once again. After tearing her ACL in pickup, Rachael started the long recovery process her twin sister knew so well.
“Finally, starting our true senior year, we were playing together,” Rachael said. “That was our first entire season we completed together.”
How are their knees doing now?
“I just say that they’re attached,” Rachael said. “They’re attached. That’s all there is to it.”
The sisters said that ice bags are a daily accessory, and both are on heavy-duty prescription anti-inflammatory medication. The two agree that, most importantly, they are planning on completing their final season—together.
Associate Head Coach Ginny Doyle, who has now in the middle of her 15th year on the staff and was once a Richmond basketball standout herself, was involved in the recruitment process of the Bilney sisters.
“From day one, with the type of kids they are, they have been great role models on the court as well as off the court,” Doyle said. “They are great ambassadors for our program. They’re extremely positive kids, and they’ve had a lot of adversity here at Richmond in terms of injuries.”
The Bilney twins always see the bright and positive side of things, Doyle said, which trickled down to effect both their team and their community. Doyle said that not only are those key aspects of their personalities, but they also lead in that way.
“Rachael and Samantha have contributed not only to Richmond basketball but also to giving back to the Richmond community,” Assistant Coach Ebony Tanner Moore said. “They have always been the first volunteers to help out in community service or to walk up and speak to a fan that has been waiting to meet them.”
For the last three years, Tanner Moore said, the team has volunteered with Big Brothers, Big Sisters of America. Upon returning from a meeting with their “little sisters”, Tanner Moore said the twins always had a fun story to share. Whatever the twins do, they do with compassion and a sense of teamwork.
“The best and worst thing about our team this year is that we have wonderful chemistry,” Sam said. “So, we may not be winning but we still love each other. That makes it all the better, but at the same time, we need to be winning more games than we are winning.”
The twins’ parents attend most of the games, especially when the Bilney sisters remind them that for every game they miss, “it’s one less game we’ll never play in front of them.” Even though the sisters are right in the heat of the spring season, they see the end clearer now then they ever have.
“It’s something we joke about, but it’s one of those horrible sad realities where you work your entire life to do something,” Rachael said. “You do it and you’re so happy, and then there’s a very real timeline that’s connected to all of it. The timeline is unfortunately extremely short right now.”
Both women agree that winning is not 100 percent the reason why they’re back for a fifth season.
“We wouldn’t have come back to win,” Rachael said. “We came back to be a part of it, to be with the girls, and obviously, hopefully, with that comes success.”
Contact reporter Anika Kempke at firstname.lastname@example.org