Jill Valley caps caffeine-fueled Owl career

  • Westfield State University guard Jill Valley (left) drives to the hoop during a game this season. The Mahar Regional School graduate enjoyed a successful four-year career in the Whip City, where her 1,451 career points ranks her fourth all-time on the school’s scoring list. Contributed photo

Recorder Staff
Thursday, March 30, 2017

It was the start to a day like any other for Jill Valley.

With the final regular-season home game of her career mere hours away, the senior guard made her usual journey to the Dunkin’ Donuts conveniently located on campus at Westfield State University and ordered.

“That day, I believe it was a medium iced coffee, cream and sugar, extra ice,” she recalled.

A pregame tradition for four years at WSU, Valley’s coffee consumption more than fueled her system for the Feb. 18 game. With Worcester State in town to play at the Woodward Center located in the heart of the Western Avenue campus, Valley strapped on her shoes and Owl No. 20 jersey. She soaked in the accolades bestowed upon an athlete honored during the Senior Night festivities prior to tip-off.

And then she dominated.

What followed was the greatest single offensive performance in Westfield State women’s basketball history. The Orange native and Mahar Regional School alum torched Worcester State for a school-record 52 points, breaking the old mark set some 42 years ago. With the stands full of friends and family from back home, Valley produced a box score that reverberated all the way back to Grzesik-Bixby Gymnasium: 52 points on 19-of-27 shooting, 8 steals, 6 rebounds and 3 assists. She scored 21 points in the fourth quarter alone, calmly sinking a free throw with about 2 minutes remaining to reach the 50-point mark. It was a highlight-reel performance for a career that was nothing short of remarkable.

“I’m honestly never going to forget that game,” recalled Valley, who said she didn’t realize how many points she had until the number sat at 49. “I remember how I felt before the game, pacing back and forth in the hallway. Normally we watch the guys’ game before ours but I couldn’t sit still. I knew the whole town (of Orange) was coming and I was trying to avoid the crowd.”

Valley’s huge outing, the top-scoring performance in NCAA Division III basketball this season, propelled her to a second consecutive Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference (MASCAC) Player of the Year selection. The honors continued to roll in for the 5-foot-4 guard (New England Women's Basketball Association (NEWBA) first team all-region, NEWBA Senior All-Star Classic, and the D3Hoops women's All-Northeast Region second team), but that 52-point outing, the record-breaker, elicited quite the reaction.

“I have nothing to say,” Westfield State head coach Andrea Bertini was quoted afterwards. “Outside of the miracle of childbirth, that's the most amazing thing I have ever seen.”

A multi-sport standout at Mahar, Valley graduated in 2013 following a career that saw her score over 1,000 points. She was a point guard with the Senators, carrying the load for a team that reached the Curry Hicks Cage and the Western Mass. Division II semifinals her final season in Orange.

It’s a bit amazing now, but Valley wasn’t really recruited coming out of Mahar. Her collegiate decision came down to Westfield and Fitchburg State University.

“Neither of my parents went to college, so at the time, I just wanted to be able to go somewhere,” she recalled. “I really liked Coach Bertini. She stayed in contact with me and all that. I read an article that drinking a coffee before a game can increase your performance. So when I came for a visit, the fact that they had a Dunkin’ Donuts, which I’m addicted to, on campus... that all but sealed it.”

Valley entered her freshman year at Westfield with quite a balancing act on her hands. She played field hockey that rookie season in addition to basketball. When the field hockey season ran into hoop preseason, she found herself a bit behind the 8-ball for the 2013-14 winter.

“I feel like at first it was a little bit hard,” she recalled. “Coming into the season late, I missed some things early. I was really shy, didnt know anybody and didn’t talk a lot. I probably only played a few minutes my freshman year.”

Going from star player at Mahar to a reduced role at Westfield, Valley was unsure what her future in the sport of basketball had in store. A big fish in a small pond during her high school years, she wasn’t the only 1,000-point scorer on her college team.

“Honestly, I thought maybe I shouldn’t play the next year,” she explained. “It was a different experience for me and I wasn’t sure if I was any good.”

Instead, Valley dedicated herself to the sport. She decided not to play field hockey as a sophomore, focusing on the hardwood and an increased role that winter with the Owls.

“I worked out really hard in the offseason so when I got going with the season, I felt I really belonged here,” she offered. “I started a game early in the year and from there, I was in the lineup.”

She averaged 13 points per game as a sophomore, increasing that to 17 per game as a junior. She took home conference Player of the Year honors that winter, setting up for an unforgettable senior campaign. Valley went to Virginia this past summer to work out with a personal trainer friend. The grueling sessions, mixed with a specific diet, had Valley in peak condition for one final season in Westfield.

“I definitely think because it was senior year, it was a different feeling,” Valley explained. “It’s your last one, you want to give it everything you’ve got every single game. It was more of an emotional feeling this season. Every time I was on the bench, you want to get back in the game and help your team.”

The Owls finished their season 19-9 overall, including an 11-1 mark in the MASCAC and their second consecutive conference championship. The squad earned its second straight NCAA Division III Tournament automatic bid, where the season came to a close with a loss to Montclair State in the opening round.

Valley, who finished with 1,451 points during her four-year career — good for fourth on the Owls’ all-time scoring list, led the MASCAC in points per game (22.5), putting her eighth in the country for D-III players. She also led the conference in free-throw percentage (81 percent), though her favorite statistic came on the defensive end of the floor. She led the entire country in steals per game, checking in with a hefty average of 4.6 per contest.

“The system we play definitely helped me there,” said Valley of her prowess for swiping the ball. “In high school, when we would press, I’d be up on the ball. But here, Coach has me in the back so it’s easy to anticipate where the ball was going to go. I could look around and gravitate where their eyes would be looking.”

Westfield State’s system yielded huge offensive numbers as well. The Owls finished second in the country in points per game (88.8), utilizing a substitution pattern that moves players in and out of the lineup for one-minute stints. 

Valley was one of five seniors on the Westfield State roster this winter. She’s not a big talker on the floor however. She likes to let her play set the pace for others.

“I felt a lot more pressure this year to do well,” she explained. “Some of my teammates would say to me, ‘We never worry when we’re on the bench because we have Jill Valley on the team’ and that’s a lot of pressure but they always believed in me. They put me in that leadership role and even though I’ve never been a big vocal leader, I’ve always tried to lead by example.”

Along with that example came a desire to win games. The Owls won 78 of them during Valley’s four-year career, including a school-record 24 victories her sophomore season. Yes, the accolades were nice and well-deserved. But playing in important games during late February and March was the highlight of her tenure at WSU.

“I never really paid attention to statistics and awards much until this year,” she explained. “This year, everyone kept telling me, ‘You’re second in the nation in this, eighth in this.’ But I was so focused on winning games and playing in the (MASCAC) championship game, that was more important to me.”

Four years of pregame Dunkin’ Donuts coffees, preferably the Almond Joy flavor when available, came to an end with the loss to Montclair State. As for her future, Valley is still undecided on an exact path. She’ll graduate in May with a degree in psychology. She’s coaching an AAU team along with some teammates this spring. There may be a pursuit in playing professionally overseas, she’s not entirely sure.

Whatever path Jill Valley chooses however, her basketball career — wins, accolades and coffees — has already been an unquestioned, resounding success.