With two older brothers and several older cousins, Gonzaga women’s basketball’s Jill Townsend was the runt of the family. Sure, she was knocked to the ground all the time and got a couple elbows to the face, but it made her tough.

Growing up on a ranch in the small northeastern Washington town of Okanogan with her extended family shaped the sophomore guard. 

“We would set up floodlights on our patio,” Townsend said. “My dad made a homemade hoop, not even the right height, like it was over [10] feet … and we’d literally play basketball all night and I’d be the smallest one out there.”

This is one of Townsend’s favorite memories. Though most people know her as a semishy player on the basketball team, those close to her are aware of her outgoing nature and unique upbringing.

“My mom likes to tell [this story],” Townsend said. “How she looked out the kitchen window doing dishes and me and my brother were in a full-out … fist fight out in the middle of the cow pasture, just cows surrounding us.”

They call it “Townsend Tough” and it translates to the court.

“[She’s] really tough, about as tough as we’ve ever had a player be,” said head coach Lisa Fortier. 

Teammates Jenn and LeeAnne Wirth said she can consistently be counted on for rebounds and she has the best celebrations on the bench. 

“She’s always a spark off the bench,” LeeAnne Wirth said.

Her coach agrees. 

“She’s like a starter for us,” Fortier said. “We feel like we have eight starters and she’s certainly one of them. She makes an immediate impact on our team. She’s instant energy, instant offense.”

For Townsend, it is easy to come off the bench with energy. She can gauge the situation and determine what the team needs as she steps up to the line. When she doesn’t have that energy, she counts on the bench to get her hyped. When someone scores or blocks a shot and the entire bench jumps up cheering, it gives her the motivation she needs.

She also relies on the atmosphere of the Kennel to energize her in the game. The stadium constantly shakes with screaming fans who are determined that nothing matters except the 40 minutes of basketball.

“They are the nicest people probably … but they are loud and they are vicious, which is awesome,” Townsend said. “They bring a lot of our home-court energy. You have to have energy to match theirs.”

Townsend is the tough one on the team, but she’s also the one that keeps everyone in good spirits.

The athletes spend a lot of time in the McCarthey Athletic Center with each other. Their days are filled with practices, workouts and watching film, not to mention classes and homework. 

“Trying to keep things light and keep things fun for the team is what I feel like I try to bring every day,” Townsend said. “You’re gonna face adversity no matter what you do in your life. Basketball has been a great teaching point on how to overcome that.”

The Wirths, who are also her roommates, said Townsend is professional on the court, but different at home. Away from the court, they consider her to be a “goofball.”

“You never know what you’re gonna get,” LeeAnne Wirth said. “We’ll have random dance parties; she’ll be like reading random news articles out loud just to make us laugh.”

Not only do they live with her, but they have also been to her ranch. 

“It definitely has rubbed off on her big time,” Jenn Wirth said. “She’s just really rough around the edges, not a dainty flower by any means.”

Townsend has a large family — and in a town of approximately 2,500 people, her family feels like basically half of Okanogan — and they support her in everything she does. Her parents have only missed one of her home games. Her grandparents are regularly  sitting in the stands. Her brothers cheer her on in the stadium. Her hometown friends have season tickets. She has a whole other team made up of the people close to her.

In fact, she initially got into basketball because of her brothers. She would go to their practices and games with her parents, and eventually picked it up herself.

“It was pretty easy to fall into basketball,” Townsend said. “I just followed my brothers around and wanted to do what they did.”

Besides basketball, she also played soccer, softball and ran track. She also has played piano since the second grade and loves to read and watch movies.

After basketball, Townsend plans on being a high school biology teacher.

Okanogan is a three-hour drive for her family to attend games, but the town is completely different from Spokane despite its proximity.

Her small hometown with no stop lights and cows everywhere didn’t hold her back from coming to Spokane. Even though she was recruited by other schools, she was insistent on going to GU.

“I kind of always knew from a young age, if I had a chance to go to Gonzaga that’d be where I wanted to go,” she said.

Samantha DiMaio is a staff writer. 

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