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It’s time to celebrate Gonzaga women’s march to prominence

UPDATED: Sun., March 11, 2018, 7:04 p.m.

Courtney Vandersloot led Gonzaga to 31 wins and the NCAA Elite Eight in her senior season. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
Courtney Vandersloot led Gonzaga to 31 wins and the NCAA Elite Eight in her senior season. (Elaine Thompson / AP)

Lisa Fortier’s first glimpse of the Gonzaga women’s basketball program came almost two decades ago, from the stands.

“They were terrible,” said Fortier, who better than anyone can appreciate what the program has accomplished in the last 15 years.

And what better time for an appreciation than now, as the Zags celebrate the program’s 10th NCAA Tournament appearance?

All have come in the past dozen years, built from the ground up by eight-time West Coast Conference Coach of the Year Kelly Graves and now sustained by Fortier, her staff and the latest generation of players.

Like the men’s program, GU women’s basketball is here to stay and built to last.

Ask the rest of the WCC, which has seen the Zags dominate almost as emphatically as the men – and in record time, even with the same inviting target on their backs.

But Fortier says success is about more than trophies.

“We’ve always set our standards high,” Fortier said last week as the Zags prepared for another round of March Madness. “We’ve stayed with the commitment not just to winning games, but to the student-athlete.”

Of course, winning helps. In the spring of 2000, Graves inherited a program that won nine games overall and finished last in the WCC. A year later, GU went 5-23.

Things got better in a hurry, then the Zags made history in 2007 with the school’s first NCAA Tournament appearance.

They haven’t looked back since, but this might be the perfect time to appreciate those 10 golden seasons:

2006-07: The Zags’ first NCAA appearance was the reward of six years of program building by Graves and his staff. Led by WCC Player of the Year Stephanie Hawk, Jami Schaefer and a promising freshman named Heather Bowman, GU went 13-1 in league but had to win three WCC tournament games in Portland to finally go to the Big Dance. An 85-46 first-round loss to Middle Tennessee State was a rude welcome, but GU would soon make its mark in March.

2008-09: After settling for the WNIT the previous year, GU came back even stronger, as Bowman was joined by sophomore Courtney Vandersloot, the most decorated player in school history. Her first accolade was an MVP award in the WCC Tournament; a week later GU earned its first NCAA tourney win, 74-59 over Xavier, before losing to Pittsburgh 65-60 in the second round to cap a 27-7 season.

2009-10: The fun was only beginning. With most of the same players, GU was even better the following year, sweeping the WCC and finishing 29-5. Recalled Fortier: “Bowman and Vandersloot, those two were so special, and they established the culture.” They also set the bar even higher with NCAA wins over North Carolina and Texas A&M before falling to Xavier in their first Sweet 16 appearance. Could things get even better? Absolutely.

2010-11: With 31 wins and the program’s only Elite Eight appearance, this season remains the gold standard for GU women’s hoops. Led by All-American Vandersloot, Kayla Standish and Katelan Redmon, the Zags went unbeaten in the WCC and rolled past Iowa, UCLA and Louisville before falling to Stanford at the Spokane Arena. “That was the most fun ever, and I still remember how excited we were,” Fortier said.

2011-12: With Standish and Redmon returning, the Zags also got a big lift from WCC Freshman of the Year Haiden Palmer. The Zags hardly missed a beat, going 14-2 in the WCC and 28-6 overall. Another deep run in the NCAAs included wins over Rutgers and Miami before Kentucky ended the run in the Sweet 16.

2012-13: The GU train kept rolling, as Palmer returned and the Zags got big seasons from WCC Player of the Year Taelor Karr and sweet-shooting forward Sunny Greinacher. Once again they romped through the WCC with a 15-1 record, though their 27-6 season ended with a first-round NCAA loss to Iowa State.

2013-14: Paced by Palmer’s WCC Player-of-the-Year performance, the Zags were 16-2 in the WCC and 29-5 overall. Shipped to Texas for the first round of the NCAAs, they lost to James Madison. A month later, Graves was hired away by Oregon, and longtime assistant Fortier stepped up.

2014-15: Fortier’s first season as head coach was a successful one, including a 16-game winning streak and a 16-2 WCC mark, but the Zags had to sweat out Selection Monday after losing in the WCC tourney in Las Vegas. Earning an 11 seed, they made the most of it by beating George Washington and host Oregon State to return to the Sweet 16. “I loved those guys and it was great to see them have that kind of success,” said Fortier, who finished 28-6 after an overtime loss to Tennessee at the Spokane Arena.

2016-17: After a slew of injuries consigned them to the WNIT in 2016, the Zags came back with a vengeance as sophomore Jill Barta came into her prime as a sophomore. Fortier got her first WCC Tournament title as the Zags reached the NCAAs. A 26-6 season ended with a first-round loss to Oklahoma in Seattle.

2017-18: With all that success comes the burden of expectation. Preseason WCC favorites this year, the Zags exceeded those expectations, winning the conference by four games and taking the tournament title as well.


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