When junior Georgi Donchetz was introduced as a member of the starting lineup before the Valparaiso University women’s basketball game against Bradley on Dec. 19, the significance went deeper than a player making her first career start.
Donchetz has made a drastic transformation from a seldom-used reserve to an important member of Valpo’s rotation. She’s averaging 18.7 minutes per game and scoring 6.0 points, pulling down 2.7 rebounds and dishing out 2.8 assists per contest. She has appeared in every game this year after playing in 19 total over her first two seasons.
Part of the turnaround can be attributed to new-found motivation for Donchetz. This year, she’s playing for her mother Tina, who passed away in November 2015 after a battle with cancer.
The family tragedy caused Donchetz to miss most of last season. She went home to Savage, Minn. over the holidays and spent significant time with her family, but away from her teammates.
“That entire time I was away, I felt like I was letting my team down,” Donchetz said. “They didn’t make me feel that way, but I still felt it. I wasn’t there for them and to cheer them on. I wasn’t making a positive impact.”
Since joining Valpo’s program, Donchetz has been known around the team for her smile, optimism and positive energy. But when she returned after Christmas, it was her teammates’ turn to keep her upbeat.
Abby Dean, a senior during the 2015-2016 season, roomed with Donchetz for every road game and was there to help her along. Dani Franklin, Donchetz’s classmate and best friend, was also there whenever Donchetz needed her. Donchetz would often return to her dorm and find cookies waiting for her to lift her spirits.
“The team kept me ticking,” Donchetz said. “There were days when I would wake up and feet like I had nothing to look forward to, but then I realized I had practice. I had people who were counting on me, and that was so important for my morale. If I didn’t have the team, I don’t know what I would have done.”
The struggle of last season came on the heels of a freshman campaign in which Donchetz was limited to nine games due to injury. She tore her ACL as a senior in high school, and had minor surgery early in her freshman year of college.
“It was kind of a bummer to see everyone else work hard and earn their minutes, because I wasn’t able to do anything like that,” she said. “By the time I was playing, everyone had settled into their spots. Every time I would start to build confidence on the scout team, I would have knee pain. I couldn’t catch a break.”
Donchetz saw action in four of the final six games in 2015-2016, but contributing on the court after so much time away was a struggle, both mentally and physically.
“I was having a lot of mental problems in the sense that I was getting so nervous I couldn’t go into a game,” she said. “This summer, I worked hard. I didn’t go home; I stayed here so I could finish my school work and work out. I was still nervous going into this season, so to be contributing is huge for me. I’m not nervous anymore.”
After being held to two points or fewer in each of the first three games this season, Donchetz scored seven or more in each of the next five contests. She reached double figures for the first time in her Valpo career on Dec. 4 at No. 1 Notre Dame, then matched that career high by pouring in 10 more points at Indiana on Dec. 11.
“My mentality changed,” Donchetz said. “I want to be the best I can possibly be in every aspect of my life. That’s 100 percent for my mom. I feel like I have this new strength and this accountability from my mom, who I truly believe is watching at all times.”
Prior to the season, head coach Tracey Dorow named Donchetz one of three team captains. Although it may have seemed like an unusual choice to some since Donchetz had played more than nine minutes in a game just twice during her first two seasons, the decision was an easy one for the head coach.
“She has had to grow up much faster than you would want a college kid to grow up based on the loss of her mom and the change in her whole family dynamic,” Dorow said. “She’s had to be really mature and see things in a different light. She’s grown in so many areas of her life. She wants to set an example for the rest of the players. She’s never hoped to be a superstar, but she’s always hoped to help us get to the top.”
On a team loaded with freshmen and sophomores, Donchetz and Franklin have taken on increased leadership responsibility as the two members of the current junior class still with Valpo’s program.
“We have a really strong relationship,” Franklin said. “We were talking the other day about how we’re the two survivors of our class. It feels really good to know we’ve been strong enough to handle this experience. I love playing with her; the energy she brings on the court is amazing."
While Donchetz has started making key contributions on the court this season, she’s been making an impact on Valpo in a variety of ways since stepping foot on campus. Last year, she started an initiative called Crusaders Fight Cancer to help raise funds for the American Cancer Society. Former Valpo women’s basketball player Annemarie Hamlet runs a booth during home games to gather donations.
When her time at Valpo comes to a close, Donchetz plans to continue to help others. The exercise science major would love to work abroad, and knows she wants to give back in some capacity.
“I’m so fortunate to not have to worry about student loans when I get out of college,” Donchetz said. “I feel like I need to do something to help the people who aren’t as fortunate.”
But for now, her focus is on a Valpo team that matched its highest nonleague win total since joining the Horizon League by posting five victories during the season’s pre-Horizon League portion.
“I’m very optimistic about how this season is going,” she said. “The pieces are coming together. I genuinely think we are going to surprise people in the Horizon League this year. All of us agree that it’s time.”