UA senior returning to Eugene

By: Bob Holt
Published: Tuesday, June 5, 2018
Arkansas' Nikki Hiltz comes into the finish line Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016, during the 28th annual Chile Pepper Cross Country Festival at Agri Park in Fayetteville.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Arkansas' Nikki Hiltz comes into the finish line Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016, during the 28th annual Chile Pepper Cross Country Festival at Agri Park in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas Razorbacks senior runner Nikki Hiltz will finish her college career this week where it started.

Back at Oregon’s Hayward Field for the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Ore.

Nikki Hiltz at a glance

COLLEGE Arkansas

CLASS Senior

HOMETOWN Santa Cruz, Calif.

EVENTS 800 and 1,500 meters (outdoor); mile (indoor)

NOTEWORTHY Six-time All-American, including four times at Arkansas and twice at Oregon … Transferred to Arkansas from Oregon after her freshman year in 2014 … Left Oregon because her scholarship was reduced … Finished second in the 1,500 meters at the NCAA Outdoors last year and was third in the mile at the NCAA Indoors this year … Won the mile at the SEC Indoors this year … Won the 1,500 and took fourth in the 800 at the SEC Outdoors last year … Was fourth in the 1,500 at the SEC Outdoors this year in her first competition of the outdoor season coming off a knee injury … Daughter of Tom and Liz Hiltz … Graduated from Arkansas with sociology degree.

Hiltz, a four - time All-American for the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, began her career at Oregon in 2014, but she transferred after her freshman year whenDucks Coach Robert Johnson reduced her scholarship.

“I think with any big team like Oregon, they shift their money for who needs it,” said Hiltz, who is from Santa Cruz, Calif. “My money got shifted a little bit too much and I said, ‘I can’t afford to go here anymore. I can go to any other school and be better off scholarship-wise.’ ”

“It was a hard choice to leave Oregon, but in the end, I’m really glad I made it. I’m really happy to be a Hog.”

Hiltz has excelled at Arkansas, highlighted by taking second in the mile at the NCAA Indoor Championships last year and third this year and second in the 1,500 meters at the NCAA Outdoor Championships last year. She also won the 1,500 at the SEC Outdoors last year and won the mile at the SEC Indoors this year.

“I’d known about Nikki since she was a sophomore in high school,” Arkansas Coach Lance Harter said. “I thought she was a potential superstar, so when I heard she was looking for a new school and we had a chance to recruit her, it was slam dunk. She’s been a great addition to our program.”

As well as Hiltz ran indoors this year, it appeared she might not get a shot to compete outdoors. She began experiencing pain in her right knee, which turned out to be patella tendinitis.

Hiltz underwent a procedure in which stem cells from bone marrow from her hip were injected into the knee. The procedure worked and relieved the pain, but there was a long rehabilitation process during which time she wasn’t able to run.

“I was like, ‘OK, I’m not going to have an outdoor season. I was dealt these cards. I’ll hopefully turn pro and I’ll be fine.’ ” Hiltz said. “But the week before conference, I was like, ‘I can do this. I can run on the ground.’

“Then from there it’s taking it one step at a time, one meet at a time.”

Hiltz had been limited to biking, swimming and running in a pool — to keep weight off her knee — but a few days before the SEC meet she ran on the ground for the first time in several weeks. She lobbied Harter for a chance to run at the conference meet in Knoxville, Tenn.

“Nikki came to me and said, ‘Hey, I’d really like to go and just give it a shot to see what happens,’ ” Harter said. “I said, ‘If you can guarantee me that you won’t set yourself back, then I’ll support that.’ She promised to step off the track if it got really bad.”

Hiltz stayed on the track and ran 4:21.15 in the first round of the 1,500 to qualify for the NCAA West Prelims and advance to the SEC final, where she took fourth in 4:22.70.

Two weeks later Hiltz ran 4:13.33 at the West Prelims to qualify for the NCAA Championships.

“What Nikki has done on such limited training is a miracle in my mind,” Harter said. “She is very, very gifted, but what she does best is race. She’s a pure racer.

“She has the ability to focus on the challenge at hand, so when the race gets really hot, she’s able to bring all her resources together and run with the best of them.”

Hiltz said she’s had extra motivation to make it back to the NCAA Championships coming off her knee injury.

“I think I’ve proved a lot of people wrong this season,” she said. “Now to do it one more time in Eugene would be awesome.”

Considering the progress Hiltz has made in such a short time, Harter said he’s not counting her out at the NCAA Championships. The 1,500 semifinals are Thursday with the final set for Saturday.

“The semis could be challenging, but if Nikki makes the final, she’s going to score,” Harter said. “She’s truly resourceful as well as talented.”

Hayward Field is being renovated after this year, so the NCAA meet is the final major college event being held at the historic facility.

“I went to Oregon to run at Hayward, and now they’re destroying it and rebuilding it,” Hiltz said. “So running this last meet there means a lot. I loved being at home with the Hayward crowd and the fans when I was at Oregon, but now when I go back, people still recognize me and cheer for me. I’m excited to perform well and hopefully leave my mark.”

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