When Karina Hill signed Cornell’s first-ever letter of intent on April 22 for the women’s basketball team, her teammates, family and friends burst into applause. The youngest player in Big Red athletics history – a 7-year-old second-grader from South Hill Elementary School – has officially joined the women’s basketball team, a Division I program.
“She’s dedicated, she loves the game of basketball, she’s super feisty and she’s tough,” said Dayna Smith, the Rebecca Quinn Morgan ’60 Head Coach of Women’s Basketball. “Don’t let this little smile fool you. She’s tough as nails.”
Because Ivy League rules prohibit athletic scholarships, Cornell does not recognize letters of intent. In this case, however, Cornell made an exception and has the full support of the conference.
“The letter of intent was a special moment to show Karina how much she means to us and how much we appreciate her,” said forward Elodie Furey ’21.
No doubt that Karina Hill, who has cerebral palsy, is a competitor. Immediately after signing the letter, she welcomed questions from the gathered media. What’s your favorite part about playing basketball? She didn’t hedge: “Beating people.”
Before the press conference, Karina played a little pickup game at Newman Arena to warm up with the team. At the press conference, a player asked her how many steals she had accumulated in that practice. Karina replied, “You do not want to know.” The room howled.
During the press conference, Karina commented from the heart: “It’s really been amazing being here and having the friends that I have.”
Karina and the women’s basketball team connected last season through Boston-based national nonprofit Team IMPACT, which aims to improve the quality of life for children facing serious and chronic illness through the power of being part of a team.
Chelsea Hill, Karina’s mother, realized that her daughter had a strong interest in basketball, so she scanned the internet for wheelchair basketball teams Karina could join. Instead, she found Team IMPACT – and within a few months – Karina was attending Cornell practices, games, team meals and special events.
“This opportunity really has given Karina a chance to grow and become stronger and more confident about who she is,” said Chelsea Hill, at the press conference, when she turned to the entire team sitting up front. “You guys are all she talks about. … [Y]ou guys are her best friends, you’re like family.”
Maurice Hill is proud of his daughter’s accomplishments. He said he dreamed of playing NCAA basketball, but Karina beat him to it. He thanked the Cornell team: “It’s been a real blessing for Karina every day, every night – that’s all she talks about. She’s so happy. It’s been overwhelming for our family.”
Several children from South Hill Elementary cheered on their classmate at the media event. Principal Perry Gorgen gave his full support. “This action touches both the big picture and the real life of our students. It means a lot for the heart and the head,” Gorgen said. “It represents one of the most beautiful partnerships.”
Warmth and camaraderie define the friendship between the team and Karina, and they spend time together off the court. The basketball players have visited her at school, and Karina joins team dinners in local restaurants.
“Karina has been a positive influence all year, and away from the basketball court she is an adventurous eater,” Furey said, smiling. “Karina has a huge personality and is a lot of fun.”
Smith explained that Karina contributes much to the team. “We are just so lucky to have her as part of the program,” the coach said. “When we signed up to work with Team IMPACT, it was giving Karina an opportunity to be part of team. But we’ve taken much more than we’ve given, I believe.”
Smith said: “We have learned from Karina and her upbeat personality. She has captured our hearts.”