On the last day of February, in her freshman year at Montana, Kayleigh Valley was on the way home from a meal with Grizzlies teammate Molly Klinker when fire trucks began whipping past their car.
OK, Valley thought, no big deal. But the trucks kept coming. Valley decided to follow them.
She found them clustered around a house, with firefighters rushing ‘round. Valley got out to see what was happening, and discovered that an avalanche had swept down Mount Jumbo, which overlooks Missoula from the northeast. Three people had become trapped within the onrushing snow.
The firemen asked for volunteers to help with the rescue effort, alongside some 50 emergency responders. There were no gear or shovels in the car, so Valley set off in pursuit of some fixings. A shovel was scavenged from another teammate’s house. They would have to make do with mittens, in place of snow gloves.
Valley and Klinker rushed back and joined in shoveling of snow. By early evening, two of the three people had been found. Night began to fall, bringing bone-rattling cold along with it. After hours of work, Valley and Klinker decided to head home. A few minutes after they’d left, the third survivor was found. “It was the first avalanche I’ve seen, and it was pretty crazy,” Valley says. “We just wanted to see if we could help out.”
Valley promises that life in Missoula doesn’t usually get so frenetic. But coming of University High, in Spokane, Wash., Valley at first wanted to head to a school in California for college hoops.
But Montana coach Robin Selvig saw the potential of this 5–11 wing. Perimeter skill, for sure, but what set Valley apart was her competitive streak. Valley went to UM’s elite camp and decided to take a recruiting visit.
She says she narrowed her choices down to UM, and a school in California. In the end, she picked the place that felt like home. “My parents haven’t missed a home game since I’ve played at Montana,” Valley says. “There’s always at least five family members in the crowd. That support was one of the biggest factors in coming to play here.”
Valley’s family loves hoops, but she discovered the sport largely on her own. She began playing when she was 5, and found she really liked it. In fourth grade, she joined a competitive team. Winston Brooks, her travel coach and a former Gonzaga men’s basketball player, became one of her bigger influences.
What developed was a well-rounded game for the wing. “She is just strong around the basket,” says Selvig, who’s entering his 38th season as head coach of Montana women’s hoops. “Last season, as a sophomore, she was one of our better post scorers — and we didn’t play her as a post, but we posted her up as a perimeter player. She can hurt you from the wing, she’s strong around the basket, and she gets to the line, where she’s a good free throw shooter.”
Valley says she didn’t have a designated position in high school — she’d bring the ball up court, play inside, or attack from the wing. In club basketball, she usually filtered between the 2 and the 3. As a UM freshman, she was a perimeter player, but before her sophomore season, Selvig told Valley he’d like her to play more in the post. It was a big adjustment, but she seized the opportunity, worked on her moves, and gradually grew into a force.
A marker of Selvig’s offense is the confidence and freedom he accords his players. In Valley’s case, she’s allowed to read her opposing defensive matchup and scheme and decide whether she should exploit a mismatch by operating from the perimeter or on the low block.
In ‘14–15, Valley started every game as a sophomore for a veteran-laden team that went 24–9 and reached the NCAA tournament. She averaged 11.5 points (second on the Griz), 4.8 rebounds — nearly half of which came on the offensive end — and over an assist a game while hitting 47% of her field goals, and 34% from three. She made 123 free throws at an 81% clip.
Valley’s first two seasons in Missoula have been marked by strings of unstoppable performances. After averaging 20 points in two wins last December, she was named MVP of the Lady Griz Classic. In March, she was one of the six players named to the Big Sky all-tournament team. Following that sophomore season, she was a co-winner of UM’s Grace Geil Most Improved Player.
Says Selvig, “Kayleigh is a very hard worker, and she’ll keep improving. Now, she’ll definitely be a bit more of a leader this season, since three senior starters have graduated.”
What Selvig wants most to see from Valley in ‘15–16 is increased consistency. “She has a tendency to get a little down on herself,” Selvig says. “Even if she’s playing well, she doesn’t think it’s well enough.”
Valley is ready for the leadership role this junior season. She’s liked what she’s seen during workouts this summer. The team is vibing. “We haven’t had a full team practice, but in open gyms, we’ve gotten into a flow,” Valley says. “We all get along really well, which I’m hoping translates onto the court.”
Valley, who has earned Academic All-Big Sky honors in her first two seasons (she just switched majors, and plans to focus on business management) sees ever-growing camaraderie among her teammates. In the summer, they float the river, or go for hikes and mountain-biking rides. “We’re hanging out a little bit more this season, doing game nights or bowling,” Valley says. “It’s a lot of fun, and it kind of reminds me of home.”