Jill Vallier has always been an athlete.
But in order to achieve her post-secondary volleyball potential, she would have to become a slightly different type of athlete.
“I’ve always been lean,” she stated. “I’ve never had to bulk up before. For basketball, I was so fast, I didn’t need to be sturdy, because I could spin away from people. It never had to happen until (coach) Dale (Beausoleil) told me that I needed to get stronger.”
Now in her fourth year with the Golden Shield varsity women’s volleyball program, the life-long Sudbury resident is reaching the pinnacle of a sporting involvement that dates well back into her youth.
“I was always a basketball player, that’s what I played the longest,” said Vallier. “I was better at basketball than volleyball, back then, but I always loved volleyball more.” A graduate of Northeastern Elementary School, the youngest of two children in the family would hit her growth spurt in grades 10 and 11, just as she was evolving in the sport in which she now plays a pivotal role.
“I started with Chill (Northern Chill Volleyball Club) at 16,” she recalled. “I had heard about it since grade seven and I kind of had always wanted to try out, but it just never happened. My 16U year was probably the biggest transition in my game – I got a lot better that year.”
“I learned more about volleyball, I learned how to play smarter. I had never run a quick before.” Thankfully her natural skill-set, a bevy of athletic gifts that also allowed her to rank among the premier long jump and triple jump competitors in the city, created a package that would eventually become molded at Cambrian College.
“I had always enjoyed track, but for me, it was more of a mindset,” she said. “I had always been part of team sports, always had people to help push me forward within a game. In track, it was only me running down the lane. That helped me a lot in the future.”
Committed to following up her career at Lasalle Secondary with academic pursuits geared towards Business and Commerce programs, Vallier narrowed her choices to Nipissing and Cambrian. “I had family who had gone to Cambrian and taken the same program, so it just seemed like a better fit for me and my learning style.”
Shy by nature, Vallier was thankfully accompanied by a small wave of Shield volleyball newcomers that included the likes of Amanda Kring and fellow Lancer Emily Clark as she adapted to her new sporting environment.
“I’m a quiet person, so to join a team with a bunch of older girls who I don’t know and was not initially super comfortable with, it’s very intimidating,” she suggested. “But I had my friends, so I had my comfort zone. Throughout the year, once you get to know everybody, then it becomes a little easier.”
Of course, beyond the acceptance from the team comes the easing into a whole new level of play, one that is notably more advanced than either her high school or club volleyball experience. “The first thing would be the speed, it’s a lot faster game,” said Vallier. “You have to be set and ready to go, especially as a middle, because you’re all over the court a lot of the time.”
“And a lot of it was the IQ of playing. At this level, you put the ball over and you have a purpose every time, whereas in Chill, if it wasn’t a good set, you just put it over to get it over.” Working alongside veteran setter Stacy Carter in her rookie campaign, Vallier overcame the early challenges, developing a chemistry that allowed her to enjoy a measure of success almost right from her opening serve.
“It was a struggle, at first, because every middle kind of jumps differently, jumps a different way at the net,” she recalled. “The nice thing about having a veteran setter is that she knows how to fix that, so it’s easy to work together to be successful.”
Like most driven athletes, Vallier strives for continual improvement, adding layers to her base abilities, expanding the roles she can play. “My favourite year was probably my third year, last year,” she said. “The difference was that I got to play in a different position.”
“I had worked really hard on my defensive play, so I got to play middle, but in the right side position. I would get to play back row with everyone else, instead of being “liberoed” out.” Blessed with outstanding speed and quickness throughout her entire athletic career, Vallier would find that even this impressive mix was not quite enough, not if she wished to reached the goals she had set for herself.
“I went through two years of being the back-up middle, because Kailey (Bastien) and Sara (Charlton) were a lot stronger than I was,” she explained. “I had speed, which was my asset to the team, but they had the strength to hit the ball harder. That drove me to work out a lot more, to finally get that strength to really hit hard.”
Still weighing her options regarding her potential return for a fifth and final year, Vallier is pragmatically optimistic when it comes to gazing into the crystal ball that is the second half of the 2017-2018 season.
“From my experience, we’ve always been a second half team,” she said. “But this year, we have had a stronger start than we have had the past years. But in the west, every team gets that much better every year, so we have to keep up to the competition.”
And if that requires transforming the athlete you are, then Jillian Vallier will do just that.