There isn’t a statue of Will Derting in the diminutive ranching town of Okanogan, Washington, but it’s there in theory.
Undersized and barely recruited, Derting went on to become one of the finest linebackers in Washington State history, concluding an All-American career in 2005 before a series of knee injuries kept him out of the NFL.
The hard-nosed talent made an immediate impact amid one of the program’s strongest eras.
“He’s got to drive 40 miles to get to a phone, so there’s not a lot of coaches recruiting him,” former WSU coach Mike Price said in 2002, a year the Cougars played in the Rose Bowl. “I think Okanogan should have a Will Derting day.”
Jim and Jill Townsend – Derting’s young cousins – were proud and present for that occasion, essentially an all-are-welcome family reunion.
To the Townsend kids, Derting was more than the brawny older cousin who chucked bales of hay on their parents’ 10,000-acre ranch. He was more of a folk hero.
He was on prime-time television.
He was at the pinnacle of college football.
He represented hard work and small-town hope.
“It motivated me. I wanted to be like Will,” said Jim Townsend, a fifth-year senior defensive end at Eastern Washington. “I wanted to play for the Cougars, but I’m here at Eastern, which is the next-best thing and a winning program.”
“It showed that athletes with a small-town background can get to that level,” said Jill Townsend, a junior guard for the 23rd-ranked Gonzaga women’s basketball team.
They’ve both carried the ag-fueled torch for Okanogan County to a sizable audience.
Jim has played at the Football Championship Subdivision’s highest level, earning starts on ESPN2 throughout the 2018 playoffs and FCS national title game.
He leads EWU (6-5, 5-2 Big Sky) in sacks (3 1/2) as he heads into what will likely be final home game Saturday at Roos Field against Portland State (4-6, 3-4).
Jill has appeared in the NCAA Tournament and has faced some of the finest nonconference programs in the country, including an 18-point performance in a 76-70 overtime loss at third-ranked Stanford on Sunday.
“Their parents did a great job with them.” EWU head coach Aaron Best said of the Townsends.
Down on the farm
Jim Townsend smiles when thinking of the makeshift basketball court and batting cages his father, Nathan Townsend, built on their property.
Beef is the Townsends’ primary export, but the ranch also produces wheat, alfalfa and canola. Their mother, Janell, is an X-ray technician.
Jim and Jill were often put to work, but when the evening settled, a string of flood lights would illuminate their basketball hoop.
That was enough for cousins and friends to come over and get in on some late-night hoops.
“That rim was like 11 feet high,” Jill recalled. “It definitely wasn’t the right height.”
Jim – now at 6-foot-4 and 265 pounds – would often lock up with his older, slimmer 6-7 brother, Joe Townsend, and had no reservations about pushing Jill around in the post.
“It got chippy out there pretty fast,” Jim said.
A two-time all-state basketball selection who broke his high school’s career scoring record (1,448 points), Jim could have just as easily pursued a small-college basketball or baseball career. He knew he was a Division I football player, though.
Jill was a more versatile commodity on the hardwood, leading Okanogan to two State 2B titles. She was the country’s 96th-best high school recruit in 2017, per ESPN.com.
The 5-11 talent was also among the best in the 2B ranks in soccer, track and field, and softball.
“(Jim’s) not the most athletic sibling in his crew. He knows that. He won’t admit that,” Best joked. “But we all know what we all can see.”
Jim, one of the top small-school recruits in Washington in 2015, chose EWU due to its tradition and proximity to his family. He appeared in seven games as a true freshman.
“He’s the consummate professional,” Best said. “Does everything the right way.”
Two years later, Jill, who drew interest from other Division I programs around the country, did the same in choosing hoops-rich Gonzaga.
Having big brother Jim down the road factored into that decision. Most of the family earned their degrees in Pullman.
“I wanted to have family close so they could see my games,” Jill said. “That was very important for me.”
Eastern Washington is a nonconference opponent for Jill, but she occasionally wears the school’s red and black garb.
It’s when Jim is playing on Saturdays in Cheney, and her parents have set up a sizable tailgate and barbecue near Roos Field.
“My dad is going to be pretty sad when that’s all over,” Jill said, referencing Jim’s Senior Day festivities this weekend. “I try to go out and watch whenever I can.”
Jim has a Gonzaga basketball shirt, one he wears solely for his sister’s games.
“I’ve gone to most of her home games,” he said. “Especially when I’m not in football season.”
Even when she’s not playing.
When Jill suffered a season-ending knee injury during the West Coast Conference Tournament last March, she had surgery and returned to Okanogan as the Bulldogs learned their NCAA Tournament destination.
Jim was also home from spring break and was sleeping when the family made an impromptu decision: a road trip to Corvallis, Oregon, and Oregon State University to watch the GU women in the early rounds.
“We woke up Jim and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to (Corvallis),’ ” Jill said. “So we all just got in the car and drove down there.”
Jim also makes the short trek to his sister’s house in Spokane, where he’s considered “the house brother” in the home of Gonzaga hoopers.
“Jim’s goofy,” she said.
He quickly corrected her.
“No, I’m quiet,” Jim said. “She’s the talker of the household and I’m more like my dad. He only talks when it’s something he’s really into, like agriculture.”
Small town pride
The pride Okanogan had for Derting at the peak of his Washington State stardom – he now lives in Ephrata, Washington, and is also active the ag business – is still alive with the Townsends.
Residents often inquire about tickets to a EWU football game or Gonzaga game and are tuned in their games on various networks.
Moments after the final buzzers in their respective sports, they often see dozens of familiar faces.
“It feels like half the town comes to my games,” Jill said. “It’s awesome that they still support us.”
“It really means a lot,” he said.
Both of their hearts are still on the farm, but they’ve each embraced the change of residing in a more metropolitan area for college.
Sharing anecdotes from the farm is also part of the fun.
“I have teammates who’d say they grew up near the mall and beach,” Jill said, “I’m like, ‘We just got a grocery store two years ago.’ A lot of teammates were shocked when I tell them about our background.”
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