Sports Person of the Week
Defense Was the Name of the Game for deJongh
Senior captain Jill deJongh and her doubles partner Alex Halsey were primed to assume the No. 1 doubles position for the Valley Regional girls’ tennis team after posting a record of 22-2 last year. (Photo courtesy of Jill deJongh )
Jill deJongh saw tremendous success with the Valley Regional girls’ tennis team, especially during her junior season last spring. The Warriors turned in a mark of 22-2, were co-champions of the Shoreline Conference, and played their way into the Class S State Tournament final in 2019. Jill and her doubles partner Alex Halsey finished with an identical 22-2 record and were primed to take over the No. 1 doubles position for Valley this year. Jill was also named a senior captain for the Warriors, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the season before she could fulfill that role on the court.
Jill had a memorable junior year not only because of her own performance, but also the achievements of her team. Jill and Halsey earned All-Shoreline Conference Honorable Mention for their stellar showing at the No. 3 doubles spot.
“I’ll always be really proud of how our team played last year,” says Jill, who recently graduated from Valley. “Our record was 22-2, and we won Shorelines. We were co-champions with Old Lyme, and we made it to the state final. Alex and I were Shoreline Conference Honorable Mention. It was a great year for us.”
Jill and her teammates were hoping to take the Warriors one step further in 2020. Jill was ready to lead that charge as a senior captain alongside Caroline Baldwin.
“Caroline and I were both excited to work together. We always encouraged people to run and prepare for the season and do the offseason training at a racket club,” Jill says. “As a captain, I wanted to be approachable for the rest of the team and not intimidating, someone who can lift up the rest of the team if they’re not feeling confident.”
Jill began playing tennis in 6th grade through the Essex Department of Parks and Recreation and quickly found that the sport was a perfect fit for her. In her freshman year at Valley, Jill was a substitute player in the Warriors’ doubles lineup. As a sophomore, Jill and Halsey started competing out of the No. 3 doubles position. Jill believes that she and Halsey were an effective duo because they have a great understanding of each other’s games.
“We’re both really similar players, which is why I think we work so well together. We both prefer to play on the baseline, and we both have similar strengths,” says Jill, an Ivoryton resident. “I think we played to outlast the other opponent, but if we had the opportunity to get the ball at the net, we would take that and win the point there.”
Jill’s defensive approach on the court was practically second nature. Over time, Jill has worked on her game at several different places, including the Old Saybrook Racquet Club, the Madison Racquet & Swim Club, and the Lyme Shores Tennis & Conditioning Center. Jill also credits Valley Head Coach Sally Riggio as a big reason for her development on the court.
“I think playing defensively came to me naturally. Coach Sally would encourage us to use lobs, which forces a pretty long match,” Jill says. “I’m not super aggressive at the net, which is why I play that way, but I would say that I’m pretty fast, and I can keep running.”
Jill tries to stay versatile in terms of her approach to the ball. Last season, she improved her backhand in order to give opponents a different look.
“I usually prefer my forehand, but I think last year, I got a lot more confident in my backhand, being on the ad side,” says Jill. “It’s in the left side of the court, so usually, you are forced to use your backhand more on that side.”
Coach Riggio enjoyed everything that Jill brought to the table as a member of the Warriors. Riggio says that Jill’s tennis talents meshed with her friendly personality to make her a huge asset for the squad.
“Jill is literally the nicest young lady you will ever meet. It’s her super power. As a captain, it gives her the power to make all her teammates feel comfortable,” says Riggio. “Jill is patient, consistent, and an excellent communicator. She’s been a very successful doubles player because of her ability to anticipate her partner’s needs, cover for her at times, and communicate her own needs. She has been a pleasure to work with both on and off the court.”
In addition to tennis, Jill also logged plenty of minutes as a defender for the Valley field hockey team. Field hockey didn’t come as naturally to Jill as tennis did, but all of that constant running benefited her overall conditioning.
“I started playing field hockey my freshman year, because I wanted to play a fall sport, and my friends were all playing it. I didn’t really know anything about it going in, but I really enjoyed it,” Jill says. “Field hockey and tennis are pretty different sports, but field hockey really helped me stay in shape, because our practices are really intense.”
Aside from athletics, Jill was involved in other extracurricular activities at Valley Regional. Jill served as president of the World Food Club, an afterschool program that focuses on helping others.
“We helped raise money for the World Food Program to distribute to developing countries. I really liked it. I felt like I was giving back,” says Jill. “I never had a leadership position like that before. It helped me grow as an individual and helped me be more involved at my school.”
Of course, Jill wishes that she was able to play her final season with the Warriors this spring, but she also understands that the campaign’s cancellation was a matter of public safety. If anything, the experience has motivated Jill to further commit herself to helping people. Jill plans on pursuing a doctorate in psychology at UConn in service to that goal.
“I thought that we would have had a really successful season. We would have been able to win Shorelines again, and I think Coach Sally thought we could have won states, too. I was really disappointed, but I understand why they had to cancel the school year,” Jill says. “It makes me more passionate about wanting to help people. You have to make sure not to take your sport or your time in high school for granted. No one was expecting this, and it took everyone by surprise.”