Senior Stephanie Golden was introduced to the ultra-competitive Lindsay Sherbert quickly last year after she transferred to Gonzaga from the University of California.
“When (Sherbert) first gets here, I’m like, ‘What’s your go-to move?’ She says, ‘I’m not going to tell you that,’” Golden said.
Golden, a 6-foot-3 center, said Sherbert’s mystery lasted “three seconds, because she did it right after that.”
After a full year of competing against the Zags in practice, Sherbert, a 21-year-old junior communications major, is expected start for Gonzaga as it pursues its 10th straight West Coast Conference Championship and seeks a deeper run into March.
Coach Kelly Graves said the 6-foot Sherbert, who is expected to mostly play wing for the team that went 27-6, won the WCC and lost to Iowa State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Zags open the season Friday against Idaho.
The team returns starters Haiden Palmer, a 5-8 senior guard, who averaged 12.5 points and 3.8 rebounds; Jazmine Redmon, a 5-9, senior guard who averaged 6.1 points and 3.8 assists; Sunny Greinacher, a 6-4 junior forward who averaged 9.2 points and 4.9 rebounds; and Shelby Cheslek, a 6-5 sophomore center, who averaged 5.9 points and 5.7 rebounds a game.
Gonzaga lost Taelor Karr, who averaged 11 points and 3.6 rebounds, to graduation, opening a spot for Sherbert. Graves said she has lived up to expectations after she came to Gonzaga after averaging 5.2 points and 2.8 rebounds as a guard for Cal during her sophomore year. As a freshman, Sherbert averaged 8.1 points and 4.8 rebounds at the Pac-12 school.
“Lindsay has been great. She is super competitive. She tries to win every drill, every scrimmage,” Graves said.
Just recently, the team held a full scrimmage in which Graves brought in officials and kept statistics similar to a real game.
Graves said Sherbert “had the second-best scrimmage in history behind Courtney Vandersloot,” a WBNA All-Star who as a senior at Gonzaga was named the top player at her position in all of Division 1.
The coach explained that he graded the scrimmage differently than the average fan would study a stat sheet. “She did have 30 points. But that’s only part of it,” Graves said.
Sherbert didn’t know that her scrimmage marks scored that high. “Coach Graves didn’t tell me that,” she said behind a grin.
Sherbert expected to use her redshirt year to get stronger and work and specific aspects of her game. But when the games started, the native of Temecula, Calif., found it difficult to sit out.
“Last year, you come to practice and you know your role,” she said. “But now, I am competing for a spot and minutes and that mentality changes completely.”
The coach who recruited Sherbert left Cal and the new coach brought in a new system. Sherbert said she stuck it out her sophomore year before deciding to come to Gonzaga.
“Here, there’s a lot more cutting and motion. It’s fun to watch and fun to play,” she said of Grave’s offense.
With senior leadership from Palmer, Redmon and Golden, Graves said he is confident about his team’s prospects heading into his 14th season.
“We are still relatively young inside. Shelby (Cheslek) has been very good defensively. She is still trying to figure out some things offensively,” he said. “But I really like this team. I think we have a chance to be a tough out for somebody come March. These kids have the talent, the depth, the play makers and they know how to win.”
An underrated key for success is chemistry, which often comes from senior leadership, he said.
“Peer pressure is a wonderful thing. It’s one thing for me to say this or that,” Graves said. “It’s another thing if Jazmine or Haiden walk up and say, ‘You need to do this or that.’ The girls listen to them.”
Graves said he pushes his players because their domination over the conference (120-10 over the last nine years) makes them a marked team.
“Of our nine other conference teams, seven don’t have a single player on their rosters who beat the Zags,” Graves said. “That makes us stronger. We know we can’t take a night off.”
Sherbert said she doesn’t feel added pressure to come in and continue Gonzaga’s success.
“It’s more of an honor to put on this jersey and represent this school,” she said. “You don’t come out and do anything less than leave everything on the court.”
Washington State coach June Daugherty said she’s confident that the playing time that six freshmen and two sophomore players received last year will help her team overcome inconsistencies that plagued her squad following big wins.
The Cougars, who finished 11-20 overall and 6-12 in the Pac-12, return three starters in 6-1 senior forward Sage Romberg, 5-9 junior shooting guard Tia Presley and 5-11 sophomore guard Lia Galdeira. The team loses starter Katie Grad and Carly Noyes, who was the all-time leader in games played, games started and blocks.
“We will miss Carly and all her blocked shots,” said Daugherty. But 6-4 junior center Shalie Dheensaw “has not missed a beat. If you were to ask me who is the most improved on our team, it might be Shalie. She gives us inside presence offensively and defensively that we haven’t seen in a long time.”
After Presley went down with a knee injury, Daugherty was forced to play freshman guards Dawnyelle Awa and Alexas Williamson at point guard. “That experience from kind of being thrown in the fire, if you will, has come back to help us. I feel we are really really solid at that position.”
Daugherty said the expected starters are Presley, Awa, Romberg, Galdeira – who is the top returning scorer – and Dheensaw.
The Cougars open the season Sunday at home against Syracuse.
Eastern Washington returns a young team that exceeded expectations by going 14-6 in the Big Sky and 19-13 overall. But the Eagles are not expected to surprise anyone as they have been picked in a preseason poll to win the conference.
“It is nice to know some people believe in us and think we can play good basketball,” coach Wendy Schuller said. “Not all teams can handle a preseason ranking like that. It’s great having so many kids back.”
The team returns four starters including All-Big Sky first-teamer Lexie Nelson, a 5-6 junior guard, and Big Sky Freshman of the Year Hayley Hodgins.They are joined by returning starters Aubrey Ashenfelter, a 6-0 senior guard, and 5-1 junior guard Kylie Huerta.
The Eagles open the season Friday at Portland and begin Big Sky play Dec. 29 at home against Portland State. They also play Nov. 20 at Gonzaga.
Hodgins “has picked up where she left off … just playing with a lot of confidence,” Schuller said. “Aubrey (Ashenfelter) is just the glue. Offensively and defensively, she has a great feel for what we want to do as a team.”
The Idaho Vandas return all five starters on a team that went 17-16 and 11-7, won the Western Athletic Conference tournament and the automatic entry into the NCAA tournament.
Coach John Newlee, entering his sixth season at Moscow, said he is excited to have so much talent returning along with four freshmen, including Reilly Brooke, a 6-1 post player from Mount Spokane.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do as a team,” Newlee said. “We have a great core of returning players, everybody back who started last year, and some key reserves.”
Leading the group is senior Alyssa Charlston, a 6-1 post player who averaged 13.4 points and 6.9 rebounds a game. Also returning are starters Stacey Barr, a 5-8 junior guard who averaged 10.9 points and 5.3 rebounds a game; Christina Salvatore, a 5-11 sophomore guard who averaged 10.2 and 4.9 rebounds a game; Connie Ballestero, a 5-9 sophomore guard who averaged 7.4 points and 3.7 rebounds a game; and Addie Schivo, a 5-6 senior guard, who averaged 4.3 and 1.4 rebounds a game.
Newlee said the key for the preseason was to see how the incoming freshmen, including 6-5 post Nejra Solo, from Zenica, Bosnia, learn to play with the starting core and key reserves.
“I love our freshmen so far,” Newlee said. “I’ve got to get everybody meshing as a group before we play Gonzaga.”
That game tips off 6 p.m. Friday at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
New coach Mike Neighbors won’t have to introduce himself.
An assistant to the past two years to departed coach Kevin McGuff (Ohio State), Neighbors is very familiar with the team and will have junior star Jazmine Davis to lean on.
With incoming freshman Kelsey Plum handling the point guard role, Davis will move to her natural shooting guard position.
Nicknamed “Nabes” by his players, Neighbors primarily worked with guards as an assistant coach, and has helped develop Davis’ game. Davis is on pace to surpass Jamie Redd as UW’s career leader in points scored and was named to the Wooden Award preseason top 30 list.
Davis was second in the conference in scoring as a sophomore (19.3 a game) to help UW finish 21-11. The Huskies lost in the second round of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.