Earlier this week, Gonzaga junior Victoria Fallgren and Idaho senior Kayla Mortellaro won their respective conference championships.
Fallgren became the first Bulldog to win the WCC individual title in the event’s 16-year history, ending an 11-year run of champions from Pepperdine. Mortellaro has won the last two WAC titles. She’s been the conference Player of the Year the last three years.
That only begins to detail the impact they’ve had on their teams.
When Brad Rickel took over as Gonzaga’s coach five years ago, the team was ranked in the 190s – like a basketball team’s RPI, that’s not great – and had no luck attracting players such as Fallgren, who had sparkling junior golf credentials growing up in Lakewood, Calif., near Long Beach.
Rickel watched Fallgren and other standouts play and sent out perhaps 10-12 feelers. To his surprise, Fallgren quickly replied, “even though she was being recruited by many schools and all of them were much more successful than GU,” Rickel said.
Fallgren was familiar with Gonzaga and Spokane. Her dad, Steve, grew up in Spokane and her grandparents still live here. Her uncle, Jason Van Nort, played basketball at Gonzaga in the early 1980s.
“I definitely wanted to come to a school where I was wanted, not where it was just convenient, and where I could make an impact and be a catalyst,” said Fallgren, who picked GU over Oregon State and several others.
“When I first came to visit, I was actually coming up for a family reunion and I’d been talking (to Rickel). We figured, why not check it out if I’m going to be up there, and I fell in love with the school.”
Mortellaro, who is from Phoenix, became the youngest player to win the Arizona Women’s State Amateur in 2004. She added another state amateur title in 2007 and advanced to the quarterfinals of the 2007 USGA Public Links.
She had numerous college options, including New Mexico, nearby Grand Canyon and Gonzaga. At the time, Rickel had left Idaho for Gonzaga and his assistant, Lisa Johnson, was promoted to head coach of the Vandals.
“After my visits I made a pro and con list and Idaho had more pros than cons,” Mortellaro said. “I liked the smallness of the town, the small class sizes and I felt I could excel. I liked the opportunity to play for four years. And I thought Lisa was a great person and great coach.”
Mortellaro broke UI’s scoring record in her first season and lowered the mark as a junior with a 71.9 stroke average. She has 10 career tournament wins, the most in school history, and she’s No. 18 in Golfstat.com’s individual rankings.
“There’s been a lot of great players come through Idaho, but Kayla’s stats are far superior to all of them,” Johnson said. “She’s irreplaceable. Anyone coming into our program that wants to make a run at Kayla’s records is going to have a tough job ahead of her.”
Individual success is one thing, but Mortellaro and Fallgren have had a profound impact on teammates, recruiting and recognition of their programs.
Idaho is ranked 71 and Gonzaga 84 by Golfstat.com.
“I just signed a recruit from Kayla’s hometown,” Johnson said. “She’s been helpful in recruiting, not only personally, but her success has helped us attract interest from players that may not have been interested before.”
Rickel said he felt like “doing cartwheels” down the fairway when Fallgren committed after a junior tournament.
“I realized my program had changed right then,” he said. “She’s a big reason why (sophomore) T.J. (Kliebphipat) is here. She made it a legitimate choice for (freshmen) Han Wu and Alice Kim. The two players we’ve signed for next year are a direct result as well.”
Fallgren’s scoring averages in her first three years rank first, third and fourth in school history. She carries a 3.5 GPA in classical civilizations. She’ll spend five weeks in Turkey this summer.
“I was enrolled in a Latin class last year because I thought it would supplement my English degree,” she said. “I realized I hated renaissance poetry and I really loved Latin so I switched my major.”
Mortellaro has a 3.8 GPA in public relations. She’s been busy with a class presentation designed to increase a Moscow band’s exposure in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene.
“Hopefully, they take some of our suggestions and they can branch out,” she said.
That approach seems to have worked pretty well for the golf careers of Mortellaro and Fallgren.