On March 11, Gonzaga women’s basketball was locked in a battle with St. Mary’s in the West Coast Conference semifinal game at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. Although the Zags won this battle with a buzzer-beater in double overtime, it was not without scars.
Jill Townsend and Laura Stockton both left the court with major injuries before the end of the game.
A minute into double overtime, Townsend stepped in front of an opponent driving to the basket. Her leg gave out, folding in an unnatural way as the other player collided with her and she fell to the floor.
“It was gross,” Townsend said. “It was like my ankle was at my hip.”
In medical terms, she had torn all of her lateral and semiosis ligaments.
Stockton, approaching the end of her basketball career with the Zags, had played her final game of college basketball. But Townsend would be back.
With about six months of recovery ahead of her, Townsend was facing a physical and emotional challenge beyond what she had ever experienced before.
She got sick often, likely because of all the new stresses, but she still attended intense physical therapy sessions which made her sore to the point of being stiff. She continued working out with the team by lifting with them during strength conditioning, dribbling the ball while sitting in a chair, rebounding for her teammates and using the rowing machine in a modified manner for cardio. In a way, the injury didn’t even phase her.
The hardest part was the mental aspect of it all, specifically during the offseason.
“It was pretty tough watching them work on their game and just not being able to be out there with them,” Townsend said.
Even now, after the six months have ended, the emotion of the injury still lingers. Whenever she steps on her foot in a weird way or falls to the floor, there is the fear of tearing the ligaments again as if they are more fragile than they used to be. Trusting that her foot is fully healed is not easy, but it is something she’s working on and hoping to overcome quickly.
“Every practice is getting better,” Townsend said. “I’m getting super close to not even thinking about that.”
Though the injury was trying, she had a whole team of people to support her. The coaches helped to improve her game even when she couldn’t play all out, fitting her into their schedule for individual training. Her teammates made sure she was included in everything they did and was keeping up with them even though she couldn’t walk.
When she went home for part of the summer, her dad helped her find something to do besides just sitting in the house. This mainly involved helping out on the ranch and riding around on the tractor or four-wheeler.
Her teammates-turned-roommates, Jenn and LeeAnne Wirth, also played major roles on her support crew. Though they refused to baby her, they would help by grabbing things off the top shelf for her, carrying her stuff up to their second-floor apartment, keeping her in a positive, lighthearted mood and even picking her up when she fell off her scooter.
“It got going really fast downhill and didn’t have a lot of brakes,” Townsend laughed.
She wasn’t the only one who faced difficulties last season. Her absence from the court brought obstacles for the team in their remaining games.
“She brings so much fire and energy and just aggressiveness … to the team so just trying to fill that was really tough,” LeeAnne Wirth said.
Townsend is one of the players who always fought for the ball and was willing to dive on the floor and take charges to get the ball on GU’s side. She was a source of energy, both on the court and on the bench.
“Trying to rally the team together without her was definitely really difficult,” Jenn Wirth said. “But it kind of gave us a little extra motivation to do it for her while she wasn’t out there.”
Townsend endured several weeks in a cast for the non-weight-bearing part of recovery, several more weeks on the scooter and even more in the boot. Eventually, she didn’t need any support anymore and the journey toward getting her game back was coming to an end.
“It’s going to be fun getting Jill out there on the court and coming together with her again,” senior Katie Campbell said.
Townsend’s constant practicing during the off-season, despite her inability to walk, paid off. When others might take an injury as a long break from the sport, Townsend was determined to make her recovery as short as possible and get back to playing full-out basketball as quickly as she could.
“She had a long recovery and we are so thankful that she’s back now,” LeeAnne Wirth said. “She’s back and better than ever and playing just as strong as she was last year.”
Though she played a few minutes in the foreign tour in August, the upcoming season will be her real comeback. The fans got to see her play during Fan Fest and an exhibition against Warner Pacific, but there’s nothing like a conference game or tournament play in full swing.
“We’re really relying on her this year to pick up where she left off on the court last season, where she will be that kind of fearless leader and a little bit more of that heart and soul of our team,” head coach Lisa Fortier said.
Townsend said she is fully committed, passionate about the game and excited to jump back into the routine of an athlete.
“I’m feeling really good,” Townsend said. “Feeling ready.”