Jill Decker was fortunate to play on back-to-back NCAA women's soccer champions and that experience has shaped both her personal and professional lives.
"I love that no matter the task, one rarely works alone," said the 1989 University of Rochester graduate who is now a Partner/Pediatric Dentist at Young Dentistry for Children in Colorado. "The synergy of each individual's efforts and everyone just doing what they do makes everything what it is."
The Yellowjackets, under the guidance of Terry Gurnett, won back-to-back NCAA Division III Women's Soccer Championship titles in 1986 and 1987. The second championship was in the first year of the UAA, making Rochester the first national champion in Association history.
"The upperclassmen were my idols and I had the greatest respect for Terry. Each year we won the championship, it felt like a dream to be part of the team," Decker said. "Every season the achievement bar inched higher and we all worked to function at that next level. Although we certainly had some of the best fun of our lives, these women meant business and taught me how to focus the energy needed for accomplishment."
Photos: Jill Decker in her University of Rochester playing days. Photos courtesy of University of Rochester Athletics.
"To me, the championships were tangible evidence that effort is rewarded and that not much of anything comes from lukewarm endeavors," Decker stated. "Riding the elation of the crowd after each win and experiencing the unique joy of communal euphoria is a sensation I'll never forget. The first year we won, my facial muscles hurt for a week because I couldn't stop smiling. The second time felt just as other-worldly and no less intoxicating. I had that heady disbelief that we had actually repeated the championship!"
"Jill primarily played wing midfielder. She had speed, was very strong, and her soccer IQ was very high," Gurnett stated. "She could read the game and was such a competitor on both sides of the ball. She could strike a ball and then get back to defend."
Decker began playing soccer in the 7th grade when her best friend talked her into choosing soccer over cheerleading. She realized in high school summer select play that playing college soccer might be a possibility, but she had already spent a fair amount of time on the Rochester campus.
"As an alumnus of the University of Rochester, my father took my siblings and me on 'tours' of the campus when we were young," she recalled. "Although my six-year-old self was more enamored with the city buses than the engineering buildings, I certainly gained an appreciation of the majesty of the campus as I got older."
Decker was interested in a medical career so the strong science and biology programs at the university appealed to her. She had also played with many of the Yellowjacket women on the team on summer teams, including one of her closest friends Maureen Wright, who played her first season in the fall of 1985. Unfortunately, Wright and her older brother were tragically killed in a car accident on their way to see skier Diann Roffe compete in the World Cup women's giant slalom event in Lake Placid. "After that, I immediately bonded with Terry and the team."
"I remember watching her play in high school," Gurnett recalled. "She was a dominant force on the field. I knew she would be an incredible addition to our team. She is a tremendous human being with a great family. I remember thinking 'this kid needs to be a Yellowjacket!'"
Gurnett remembers that Decker's college choice came down to Rochester and Cornell University. After she chose Rochester, the Cornell coach made it clear she had made the wrong decision. That further cemented for her that she made the right decision. "We played them every year and her senior year, we defeated them for the first time," he said. "I took Jill out late in the game and she was jumping around, she was so happy we were going to win that game. She was a very quiet competitor, but it all came out in that Cornell game."
The 1986 schedule included four NCAA Division I opponents and NCAA Division II LeMoyne College, but with the formation of the UAA, the 1987 schedule looked much different. "One of the benefits of traveling to schools in the UAA, other than to experience campuses outside the Rochester area, was visiting the childhood homes of many of our teammates," Decker recollected. "Getting acquainted with a player's parents and siblings, and experiencing their hometown, enriched our relationships."
"She was involved with everyone and everything on the team," Gurnett added. "She treated everyone the same. She was a great player on a team full of great players. She was one of the very best."
The UAA balance between athletics and academics was something Decker relished. "One of the benefits of attending the University of Rochester was the understanding that academics was the priority," she commented. "There was a cooperation between the athletic and academic administrations that facilitated student-athletes' efforts. It was our responsibility to master the habit of 'time management,' which required a great deal of organization and planning."
2002 University of Rochester Hall of Fame inductees: (back row, left to right): Eugene Nicandri, Reed Martin, Philip Yurecka, and Mark Palvino; (front row, left to right): Jeanne Cramer Armstrong, Patricia Norris Anderson (accepting for H. Scott Norris), Jill Decker, and Halford Johnson. Photo Courtesy of University of Rochester Athletics.
For Decker, there was no doubt that she chose the best university for her. "Recognizing the satisfaction of 'being in the right spot' academically and athletically, I felt at home my entire Rochester career."
Another life lesson learned during her time as a student-athlete was the sacrifices parents make. "Our parents and families had a vital impact upon our college experience," she remarked. "As the parent of teenagers now, I see ever more clearly the gift my parents gave when they carted me all over the country to play soccer. Without mentioning all the sacrifices they were making, my parents proved their belief in me by encouraging me to attend a top-rated university. This is a model for me, as I navigate my own children's talents, which alas, do not include soccer."
After earning her D.D.S. from State University of New York at Buffalo School of Dental Medicine in 1993, Decker earned her Certificate of General Practice Residency from Denver Health Medical Center in 1994 and received her pediatric dentistry certificate from the Children's Hospital of Colorado in 1997.
She and Gurnett have stayed in touch every step of the way. "Jill represents the very best of what we try to do," Gurnett said. "She is one of my favorite people in the world."
"Living in Denver for my dental residency, I tried to wrap my head around the requirement to be proficient in all areas of dentistry," she said. "During this time, I met my mentor, a pediatric dentist, who thought I may have a talent for treating children. With his encouragement and with great relief knowing I could focus on one specific area of dentistry, I decided to continue my education and become a specialist."
Photo: Jill Decker with her children
That decision to work with children has allowed Decker to make a positive impact on others. "The most gratifying part of my job is the opportunity to help change the long-held perceptions people have of dentistry being a dreadful prospect," she said. "We begin seeing children by their first birthday, or thereabouts, and we typically prevent problems and optimize a child's dental experience. The deep relationships we develop with the families who come to our practice for such a long time have been a blessing and it becomes an emotional struggle for me when the teenagers are sent off to an adult dentist."
One of the most important lessons she learned as part of a team was patience. "I gained patience with myself and others," she stated. "I've realized life's purpose is not to roll out an easy golden path and that the things that happened as a soccer player could be viewed as metaphors for the challenges and surprises of life. No matter how grueling I think my workday is, or whenever I feel pushed to the max, I simply remember the preseason two-mile run and realize that, by comparison, few things are ever that excruciating!"
Photo: Jill Decker's children