SAN MARCOS, Texas – When Jill Townsend steps on the basketball floor Monday afternoon for her first NCAA Tournament game in three years, there will be a pause, a big exhale.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s going to be unreal,” said Townsend, throwing her stoicism to the Texas wind as the subject turned to the NCAAs and the Zags’ first-round date with the Belmont Bruins.
“It will be a sigh of relief that we’ve made it,” Townsend said. “To be able to step on that floor after all that’s happened …”
Then she stuffed the emotions back inside and resumed the persona of senior captain.
She didn’t feel the need to revisit the pain – of injury, pestilence, fire and illness that have staggered Townsend and those she loves.
She also didn’t mention the extraordinary highs – the winning shots, the championships, and above all the sublime sisterhood of a college basketball team.
“This is also a business trip, and we have a job to do,” Townsend said.
In her home town of Okanogan, Washington, they’re selling T-shirts for March Madness.
“Townsend Tough 32,” they say in bold type, a tribute to Jill and the number she’s worn since high school.
The words are heartfelt from those who know her best, an acknowledgment that Townsend has handled triumph and disaster with more equanimity than most of us could muster.
It was also from Okanogan that Townsend took the toughest road trip of her career on a chilly Friday night exactly two years ago.
Eleven days earlier, she had helped the Zags come from behind to beat Saint Mary’s in the semifinals of the West Coast Conference Tournament in Las Vegas.
Late in the game, her left leg buckled and broke. Following a painful surgery the following week, she was back at the family ranch near Okanogan.
Her left leg was in a cast. And yet, her only thought was of her GU teammates, now 400 miles away in Corvallis, Oregon, and preparing for a first-round game.
Townsend could have sat there, counting on her teammates to do their jobs. Yet Townsend reckoned she wasn’t doing her job, that texting just wasn’t enough.
Her teammates needed her.
“I was just dying,” Townsend said.
She asked her older brother Jim to drive her to Oregon. A former lineman at Eastern Washington, he understood the bonds of teammates.
Sure thing, Jim said.
Their mom Janell, home during her lunch break to check on Jill, was a tougher sell. She called the surgeon, who gave his OK.
That was all it took. The next morning, Townsend was standing outside the arena at Oregon State as the team bus pulled in. Players shrieked, gently embraced Townsend and then manhandled the Little Rock Trojans.
Townsend and Laura Stockton, also injured in the Saint Mary’s game, joined the midcourt celebration.
“It was like our team was whole again. That was important to Townie,” coach Lisa Fortier said.
“But it was a bittersweet moment,” Townsend acknowledged.
As her teammates moved on, Townsend began a rehab that was longer and more painful than expected.
“I was shaking so bad, it was just so hard,” she recalled.
Yet by summer, Townsend was taking in Hoopfest, entertaining passersby on the piano. She had begun taking lessons in the second grade from a teacher who still texts her after games.
No challenge too great
Yet the tomboy image is indelible. When her parents were away at work, Townsend and her older brothers would run to the fields and jump from one hay bale to another.
That sounds safe enough until Janell pointed out that the bales are 3 to 4 feet high and piled on top of each other in stacks of four or five – which comes out to … “that’s right, 20 feet,” Janell said.
“The things those kids did,” Janell said.
By fifth grade, Jill followed in Jim’s footsteps and decided to play football, the tackle variety.
“I got to play quarterback, and I loved it,” Jill said.
Mom tolerated that for exactly one year.
“Then she tells me, … ‘I’m going to play soccer instead,’ ” Jill said. “We get to practice and I refused to get out of the car, so she forced me out.”
By the end of her career, Townsend was a state champion in soccer, finished fourth in the javelin at state and also played softball.
But basketball was always at the top of the list in Okanogan, where the town streets empty on game nights.
“There’s nothing else like it,” said Townsend, who led Okanogan to a trio of state titles, yet didn’t draw a lot of attention from recruiters. Washington State offered, but Townsend wanted to play for Gonzaga.
Townsend waffled, and the scholarship went elsewhere. She shone during an AAU tournament in Las Vegas that summer, however, boosting her stock for another shot with the Zags.
During a home game in her junior year in 2016, with GU assistant Jordan Green in attendance, Townsend split the area near her eye. Mom was there, however, with butterfly bandages and Jill went on to score 42 points.
Fortier called with an offer and asked Townsend to think about it.
“No, I’m going to take it right now,” Townsend said.
More work lay ahead. A post player in high school, Townsend knew she’d be handling the ball on the wing at GU.
“So I focused on my guard skills,” Townsend said, reinforcing the fact that talent only goes so far.
“I’m extremely proud of her – her grit, her determination,” said Janell, who with husband Nathan made it to every GU game.
Townsend scrapped for playing time as a freshman, but found her niche as “our glue guy,” Fortier said.
She didn’t start a single game but played in every one, including a first-round NCAA Tournament loss at Stanford.
“I played 7 minutes and didn’t do much,” Townsend recalls of her entire NCAA experience so far.
A breakout sophomore season included a home win over Stanford and another WCC regular-season title.
By fall 2019, her rehab was complete and she went on to be conference player of the year. It was another high, followed by another crash.
After an upset loss to Portland in the WCC Tournament semis, the Zags returned home to the gathering storm of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We were just as mad as we could be about that, and ready for some redemption,” Townsend said. “We were going to pack the Kennel for the NCAAs.”
The hammer dropped while Townsend was home with her parents at a bull sale.
“I was in shock,” Townsend said. “I turned to my parents and told them, ‘The NCAAs are canceled.’ … Then I went completely limp.”
She went home for online classes and summer workouts – no easy feat in Okanogan, 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.
A few months later, wildfires scorched the family ranch and that of Chandler Smith, her former GU teammate.
Friends since childhood, they rode for miles that Labor Day, rescuing the cattle that survived and lamenting those that didn’t.
Six months later, the Townsend cattle are grazing on leased acres.
But life goes on. Back at GU, she got daily updates from the ranch while she and her teammates prepared for a season that might not happen.
Controlling what they could, Townsend and the Zags stayed healthy and went on to win another WCC title. It was their fourth in as many years.
A week later, before the WCC Tournament title game against BYU, they faced another challenge: stomach flu.
“It was the sickest I’ve ever been,” said Townsend, who wouldn’t have played at all but for two bags’ worth of intravenous fluids.
“I just wanted to play as much as I could, to give somebody a breather,” Townsend said.
Perhaps that gave her some strength, another dose of Townsend toughness. Down by as many as 13 points in the second half, the Zags hung in and handed the ball to Townsend for one last shot with less than 1 second to play.
Famously, it went in, the last step until the one Townsend will take on Monday.
“I’m ready,” she said.
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