Arrow-right Camera
Subscribe now
Gonzaga University Athletics

Gonzaga wrangled talent, ranch-tough work ethic with Chandler Smith, Jill Townsend

It’s been quite a year for Gonzaga women’s basketball star Jill Townsend, who led the Zags to a West Coast Conference title and was named WCC Player of the Year. Since then, COVID-19 wiped out the NCAA Tournament, fire scarred the family ranch in Omak, Wash., and it’s unclear what will happen with Townsend’s senior season.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

When the land called her home, Chandler Smith didn’t think twice.

Last weekend, the former Gonzaga basketball star left her job in Spokane, returned to the scorched earth of her family’s ranch north of Brewster, Washington, and went to work.

It promises to be hard and dirty, with no end in sight.

“But family comes first,” Smith said.

They certainly need her.

Like some gigantic blowtorch, the fires that swept through Okanogan County on Labor Day weekend left the Smith ranch blackened and scarred. It will be two or three years before cattle can graze there again.

The hay is gone, too, incinerated by what Smith called a “volcano” of fire.

It roared in from the north, from the ranch owned by the family of Jill Townsend, her lifelong friend and former GU teammate.

Friends since childhood, they rode for miles that Labor Day, rescuing the cattle that survived and lamenting those that didn’t.

“We’re still in complete shock,” Smith said. “We’re all taking it day by day.”

Since then, Chandler’s father Dale, brother Davey and the hired hands have covered 40,000 acres, only recently chasing down the last of the scattered cattle and getting an accurate count of what remains.

Now they need to chase down some food for the animals; and after that, a lot of pastureland.

“That’s the thing right now, there’s nothing to feed them through the winter,” Smith said. “And then, next spring and summer, what are we going to do?”

Meanwhile, the Townsend family is facing the same tough questions.

“We’ve been hit pretty hard,” Townsend said.

The land is calling out to her as well. Townsend would be there but for the fact that it’s her senior year at Gonzaga, with a degree to earn and a team to lead on the basketball court.

That, too, is a big responsibility.

“It’s hard, but I keep in contact every day, asking what’s going on,” Townsend said.

The virtues of hard work

As Gonzaga women’s basketball coach Lisa Fortier sees it, success on the court is less about talent than work ethic.

Every Zag has it, but farm girls like Smith and Townsend may have a bit more resilience, an ability to “dig a little deeper,” figuratively speaking, because they’ve literally been doing so since they were young.

They were raised on ranches that adjoin but are so expansive that Smith went to Brewster High School and Townsend to Okanogan High.

In her junior year in 2013, Smith and the Bears won a State 1A title.

Smith’s game also stood up against top-tier AAU competition, and colleges noticed.

“We recruited the heck out of her,” said Fortier, who was still an assistant under Kelly Graves when Smith reached her senior year at Brewster.

“We even rode horses at the ranch,” recalled Fortier, who faced competition for the four-star recruit from Baylor, Oregon State and other big-time programs.

For GU, it was a case of bad timing.

Little did either know it at the time, but a few months later, Fortier would take over the program when Graves went to Oregon.

The 18th-ranked wing in the country in 2014, Smith chose Nebraska, which offered a down-on-the-farm atmosphere and an agribusiness program.

“Gonzaga didn’t have that,” said Smith, who eventually came around to the fact that it had everything else.

Better yet, her parents could drive 2½ hours and watch her play.

Transferring a year later, Smith had to sit out a year because of NCAA transfer rules, but was back on the court in fall 2017.

Townsend was there, too, a freshman who won three state titles at Okanogan.

Together, they won a pair of West Coast Conference titles before Smith graduated with a 3.87 grade-point average and earned not one, but two master’s degrees.

Smiling through adversity

No mask is big enough to hide the smile on Townsend’s face; and seemingly no setback can wipe it away.

In the past 18 months, Townsend has endured wrenching injury, two lost postseasons and a devastating fire. Still ahead is a senior season that so far has been defined more by positive coronavirus tests and social distancing protocols than anything that’s happening on the court.

In their last game as GU teammates, Smith watched her neighbor crumple to the floor with a serious leg injury.

That was on March 11, 2019, at the WCC Tournament in Las Vegas.

Ten days later, Townsend was back home on crutches while the rest of the Zags were in Corvallis, Oregon, for the first round of the NCAAs. Without her.

That wouldn’t do.

Five hours later, Townsend was on her way, driven by her mother Janell and brother Jim, then a football player at Eastern Washington who happened to be home on spring break.

She was waiting outside the arena as the players arrived for the NCAA opener against Little Rock. Soon, the whole bus was cheering.

Balanced on crutches but floating on air, Townsend offered heartfelt hugs to everyone.

Properly motivated, the Zags took that game, their first NCAA win in four seasons.

A study in resilience

While Smith went on to play professionally in Iceland, her former teammate was recovering – and then some.

Townsend capped her junior year with a third consecutive conference title, player of the year honors – and utter disappointment when the NCAA Tournament was canceled by COVID-19.

“It was pretty devastating for everyone,” Townsend said. “It was no secret that we were going to have a good seed going in.”

Townsend went home for online classes and summer workouts – no easy feat in the small town of Okanigan, where all the gyms were closed by the pandemic.

“So I had to get creative,” said Townsend, who lifted water-filled jars and anything else she could scrape up on the ranch.

“She’s definitely a grinder,” Fortier said.

Townsend and her teammates returned to Spokane in late July.

That’s where she was when a wildfire erupted near the ranch. Townsend’s parents, Nathan and Janell, were out of town at the time.

Townsend drove home, arriving at 2 a.m. to the scene of flames fanned by 40 mph winds.

She and her brother Jim hauled possessions from the house and herded the animals to safety. The Townsends didn’t lose any structures and only one animal, but the land was scorched.

“It was hard to take,” Townsend said.

Chandler Smith, left, stands with her former Gonzaga teammate, Jill Townsend, after the pair spent the morning looking for lost cattle near Smith’s family ranch on Sept. 8 near Brewster, Wash. The morning was exhausting, with the pair finding many dead cattle in the wake of a wildfire.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Chandler Smith, left, stands with her former Gonzaga teammate, Jill Townsend, after the pair spent the morning looking for lost cattle near Smith’s family ranch on Sept. 8 near Brewster, Wash. The morning was exhausting, with the pair finding many dead cattle in the wake of a wildfire. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

Hope and healing

The fires were relentless, but so was the outpouring of support from the community.

Chandler and her brother, Davey, paid it forward, going door to door and waking neighbors as the flames crested nearby hilltops.

Help arrived quickly. The family’s longtime veterinarian was on his hands and knees pulling weeds and brush away from their barn and the house, along with high school kids from Brewster.

“People came out and were clearing brush and getting things packed out of the house,” Smith said.

In the days that followed, neighbors brought meals and supplies, even hay and salt licks for the cattle.

“It was just amazing, how everyone in the community came out,” Smith said. “Just to see everyone like that was incredible.”

It was the same story at the Townsend ranch, as neighbors helped in many ways.

About a week later, Townsend was pulled back to her other family, the Zags of Spokane.

In both places, life goes on. The land will heal, and basketball games will be played, despite all manner of hardship.

“Like everyone else, I have those ‘why me?’ days,” Townsend said. “But it comes from my family and how I was raised, there’s always this resilience in me.”