The Collegian
Friday, April 19, 2024

Sisters stick together in the pool and on the hardwood

Jillian Smaniotto, '12
Jillian Smaniotto, '12

The University of Richmond's swimming and diving team and women's basketball team don't usually share many similarities, but this year they share something rare.

After welcoming their freshmen last fall, both teams have become more like family with a pair of sisters on each of their rosters. On the swimming and diving team, senior Cara Smaniotto is sharing lanes with her sister, Jill Smaniotto, a freshman. The women's basketball team added freshmen twins Rachael and Samantha Bilney.

The Smaniotto sisters on the swimming and diving team are new to sharing their experiences and learning new things about each other.

"I didn't realize in high school how hard she works," Jill said. "Coming here and seeing how hard she works at practice, how much she encourages everyone else, I don't know, it has given me a whole new image of her."

Now that Jill is at Richmond, Cara, the team's captain, has shown her sister what the team means to her. During Cara's four years, she and her teammates have focused on building a team that doesn't just win, but wins together.

When Jill was sick during the beginning of this season, Cara put her skills of encouragement and support to good use. Between being the big sister and the team captain, Cara was there for Jill from beginning to end.

"Getting to see her swim well at Rutgers was pretty cool," Cara said. "It was the first time that [she] really looked like herself. She had a rough first semester so it was cool to see her swimming like herself."

As Jill's college swimming career is getting off to a great start, Cara's is coming to an end. The Atlantic 10 Championship, scheduled to start Feb. 17 in Buffalo, N.Y., is approaching, and Cara is looking forward to trying to win Richmond's eighth consecutive championship title.

"It's bittersweet," Cara said. "I've been swimming my whole life so it's going to be weird. I'll miss this team a lot. But, I'm excited to see how fast everyone will swim there."

After Cara graduates in May, Jill knows she won't be "little Smanny" for very long. But the work that her big sister's team has done to encourage and motivate each other through long practices and tough meets is something Jill wants to help survive, long after her sister has shed her cap and gown.

"They've made a huge impression," Jill said. "You hear horror stories about teams at other schools. We came here and were treated like equals, like part of the team, and that's something that won't change."

As sisters, the Smaniottos have made an impression on their coach, Matt Barany. With a laugh and a smile, Barany pointed out that the sisters are very different people who really care about each other and about the team.

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"Having the two of them on the team just solidifies that, cliche as it is, we are a family because now we have family on the team," Barany said.

The Bilney Twins

Unlike the Smaniottos, the Bilney twins have shared basketball, and everything else, for their entire lives.

Playing college basketball for a competitive team at an academically challenging school across the country from their home town of Mill Valley, Calif., might be intimidating, but the Bilney twins never broke a sweat.

"A twin is like a built-in best friend," Samantha said. "You could plop us down anywhere and I'm sure we'd find something fun to do."

Though the pair works well together, each holds different talents. Rachael plays guard, wearing her favorite jersey No. 31, and just tied a career-high with 10 points, going 3-for-6 from long range. Samantha, or Sam, wears No. 24, plays forward and is the team's captain.

Although it is rare for a freshman to hold that position, her sister chimed in to say that the team had lucked into having Sam as captain: "When the team looks at Sam, we don't see an 18-year-old. We see a leader who is level-headed and a good voice for the team."

Richmond's loss at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, earlier this month came as a tough blow for the team. Before losing in overtime, Sam's ACL was torn for the third time. Although the injury is a disappointment, Sam has begun rehabilitation and the two have already found a way to laugh about it.

"So, I'm looking at Sam cry," Rachael said, describing the game after Sam's injury. "And, I'm crying. Then, I look at other injured girls on the team and they're crying."

Sam responded: "Yeah, I'm looking at her cry and saying, 'You need to pay attention! You're still in!'"

Sam is now the fifth injured player on the team, but, always positive, Sam and Rachael started talking about how great it was to beat conference rival George Washington University for the second time this season.

With their wins and losses at 17-7 and a game at the University of Rhode Island at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, the team is looking hopefully down the road at post-season. The team's coach, Michael Shafer, wants to keep this season going because, among the many reasons, he's having a good time.

"They have really made it a lot of fun," Shafer said. "They are both talented in their own skills, well-rounded, grounded people and incredibly humble people. I have a heck of a lot of respect for the both of them."

As Shafer tried to describe how the team has improved internally, his smile brightened explaining that the team has become much closer and the twins have helped it to do so. Disheartened by Sam's recent injury, he spoke confidently about her recovery, adding that the two are invaluable on and off the court.

"You're not just going to be writing about them this year," Shafer said. "By the time these girls are seniors, everybody on this campus is going know who they are, and not just because of basketball."

Contact writer Amelie Lebreton at

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