By Larry Parnass
When an equestrian unit from Virginia Tech joins a national competition in the Valley Thursday, it will be without rider Emily Jane Hilscher, the first student shot and killed in the April 16 massacre.
To honor Hilscher's memory, and to extend its sympathies to the Virginia school, host Mount Holyoke College is orchestrating special events.
The South Hadley women's college is the reigning national champion in the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association, this sport's equivalent of the NCAA.
Before the national finals get under way Thursday at the Big E in West Springfield, showcasing top riders from 40 schools around the country, a bugler will perform taps in Hilscher's memory.
And in a moment silence, the squads will reflect not only on the sorrow of losing a friend, but a teammate.
Together, the teams will pause to share a grief over what happened to 32 people in Blacksburg, Va., in a state known for its equestrian excellence. Hilscher, an 18-year-old from Virginia, was majoring in veterinary science and hoped to become a veterinarian.
Because of her death, Virginia Tech will be traveling to the Valley with a replacement rider.
"It will bring people together. It will be very emotional for all of us," said Carol J. Law, the Mount Holyoke coach and program director at its Equestrian Center.
Law, a main organizer of the three-day competition, said she and others will also try to get members of all 18 visiting teams, plus riders who qualified individually, to wear Virginia Tech school colors and join in a rendition of the Virginia school's "Hokie" cheer.
"We're going to get the whole audience to erupt, I hope," Law said.
Further, the association is gathering support for one or two new scholarships in Hilscher's name that will be awarded to students from Virginia interested in horses.
On her MySpace.com page, which remains active, Hilscher referred to herself as "The Pixie."
In its posthumous profile of her, the New York Times said Hilscher spent summers riding and working for a veterinary clinic. The Rappahannock County administrator, quoted by the Times, called her "an outgoing kid, smart as all get out, a straight-A student. ... She didn't have a subject she didn't excel in."
A veterinarian with the Rose Hill Veterinary Practice, where Hilscher was an assistant, told the Culpeper Star-Exponent newspaper that the young woman's love of animals was clear to all.
Sara Royston, a 2006 Mount Holyoke graduate who is still involved with the school's team, said response to the planned tribute this week has been solid.
"Every school, from big to small, has stepped forward and said, 'We want to be a part of this,'" Royston said in a phone interview Wednesday from the Big E, where she and Law were preparing for the competition's start Thursday.
"They want this to be a positive experience and for Emily's memory to be carried on. By no means is this just a Mount Holyoke project," she said.
Royston said she has been told that Hilscher was dedicated to the Virginia Tech equestrian team. "She was an animal lover and very involved with her team. She was always there to support her team."
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