Jill Barta and Laura Stockton have some big shoes to fill: their own.
Last year they helped lead Gonzaga to a West Coast Conference title and a return to the NCAA Tournament, but coach Lisa Fortier has increased expectations since then.
And why not? Both are juniors, so they’re being asked to contribute more than points, rebounds and assists.
“Junior year, that’s when you get a little more picky,” said Fortier, who wants her upperclassmen to excel at the intangibles that can make the difference between another WCC title and something a lot less satisfying.
For Barta, GU’s versatile 6-foot-3 forward, that means keeping her emotions in check and showing the right body language on the court.
For Stockton, who’s otherwise developed into a complete point guard, it means staying level-headed.
“One of the things I love about Laura is how competitive she is,” Fortier said. “But there’s times when she’s too emotional … we need her to find a level where we don’t have spikes or lulls.”
The Bulldogs had few of those last year during a 26-7 season that ended in the NCAA Tournament. A return trip will depend on how well Barta and Stockton handle the mantle of leadership after the graduation of Kiara Kudron and Elle Tinkle.
Last year, Barta did a little of everything, leading the Bulldogs in scoring (16.8 points per game) and free-throw shooting (84.7 percent), while averaging six rebounds.
Stockton, a Gonzaga Prep product, had 75 assists and only 43 turnovers while averaging 8.4 points and a team-leading 2.5 steals.
They will lead a team that already has great chemistry, according to Fortier.
“I love this group of players,” Fortier said. “They get along and care about each other … and they seem so coachable. Everything is new and fresh.”
In the backcourt, Fortier likes the fact that everyone is versatile. “In the past, sometimes we had people we were trying to hide, offensively or defensively,” Fortier said. “That’s not the case this year.”
Besides Stockton and returning starter Emma Stach, the Bulldogs bring back junior wing Chandler Smith, speedy sophomore point guard Jessie Loera and sophomore Corryn Douglas.
They will be pushed by Jill Townsend of Okanogan, Washington, who’s only 5-10 but has the strength and versatility to compete for minutes as a true freshman.
Smith, a 6-footer from Brewster, Washington, played in all 33 games last year. She found her rhythm in WCC play, averaging 5.0 points and shooting 37 percent from long range, while averaging almost three rebounds in 16 minutes of playing time. She’s also a strong defender on the wing.
A potential concern is overall 3-point shooting from the guards. GU lost two of its best with the graduation of Makenlee Williams and the transfer of Zhane Templeton, while Stockton shot only 22.2 percent.
“Worried? A little bit,” Fortier said. “But I think we’ve improved our shooting percentage in general. I don’t think we’ve have the kind of team that fills it for 17 3s (as the Bulldogs did last winter in a home win over BYU), but we didn’t add any people who should never shoot a 3.”
On the contrary, Templeton’s spot was filled last summer by transfer Katie Campbell, a 41.3 percent shooter (32.2 percent from 3) last year at Ventura (California) College.
Besides, GU also can count on Barta, who shot 36.3 percent from 3 while taking 113 shots, most on the team.
Last year, Kudron averaged almost eight boards and was the Bulldogs’ best defender in the paint. Barta and Zykera Rice will be doing most of the heavy lifting this season.
“Jill has been such a capable scorer that she hasn’t had to think as much about that part of the game,” Fortier said. “But she and Zykera are both capable. … It’s up to her or Zykera to see who defends the other team’s best post player.”
Rice, a 6-1 junior from Lakewood, Washington, will be a key player this year. Last season, she averaged 4.4 points and 2.9 rebounds while playing less than 10 minutes a game. Those numbers should rise significantly this season.
The Bulldogs will be without injured post Emma Wolfram, but could get more help inside from a trio of true freshmen, including 6-3 twins Jenn and LeeAnne Wirth, and 6-1 Gillian Barfield.
Player to watch
Quietly and efficiently, Emma Stach has become the GU’s “glue guy.”
The 5-foot-9 guard from Buchholz, Germany, not only is the Bulldogs’ best defender, she grabbed almost three rebounds a game last year and was the fifth-best 3-point shooter in the West Coast Conference.
Stach – a 63-game career starter – is now a senior, and coach Lisa Fortier is raising the bar for her captain, especially on defense.
“We’ve challenged her to step out of her comfort zone,” Fortier said. “We need her to be a little more reckless, to take a risk every once in a while on defense.”
Stach – who shot almost as well from 3 last year (37.6 percent) as from inside the paint (40.1 percent) – will be key outside shooter for the Zags again this year.
Last year, Stach averaged 21 minutes and 5.8 points, but both of those numbers should go up this year.
Gonzaga always expects to take care of business at the WCC Tournament, but what if it doesn’t?
“Resume builders,” Gonzaga coach Lisa Fortier calls them, those nonconference games in November and December that can come in very handy in March.
GU has several of those this year, highlighted by the eight-team Play4Kay Showcase on Nov. 23-25 in Las Vegas. The Bulldogs open with Belmont, but the field also includes 2017 Final Four participant Stanford, Big Ten champ Ohio State and Big East titlist DePaul.
Gonzaga also plays at WNIT semifinalist Washington State on Dec. 8.
The regular season opens Nov. 13 at Colorado State, which won the Mountain West regular season last year.
The final nonconference game is Dec. 21 against Summit League regular-season winner Western Illinois.
On paper, the biggest WCC challenge will come Jan. 18 at Saint Mary’s, which is picked to finish second behind GU.
The Bulldogs also have a tough stretch in early February, hitting the road at San Diego and BYU, then hosting the Gaels on Feb. 10.
➤ 1. Gonzaga
2. Saint Mary’s
3. San Diego
5. Santa Clara
6. San Francisco
7. Loyola Marymount