CORVALLIS, Oregon – The Zags are back.
As the NCAA women’s bracket was revealed on Monday afternoon, Gonzaga coach Lisa Fortier was all business.
Her first thoughts were of the Zags’ seed, of course, then the opponent and finally the site – Corvallis.
Soon the memories flooded back – of four years ago, when Fortier’s first team went from the bubble to the Sweet 16 in one magical weekend in the Willamette Valley.
After sweating out Selection Monday behind closed doors, they gratefully took that No. 11 seed and blew the doors off Gill Coliseum.
A win over No. 6 seed George Washington was a mild upset, but two days later they beat the host Beavers 76-64 to earn a Sweet 16 spot – in Spokane, no less.
But if that was a sweet homecoming, so was Friday’s return to Gill.
“You walk in here and the memories come back to you,” said Lisa’s husband, assistant coach Craig Fortier, as the Zags prepared for Saturday’s first-round game against Little Rock.
Lisa Fortier recalled the hard work as much as the wins.
“Those players played extremely hard for us, whether they wanted it for us or for them,” she said.
In other words, just like this year.
None of the current players was on that 2015 team, but the Zags are back – in some ways better than ever.
Their 27-3 regular-season record was the best in program history. So was their start – 16 wins in their first 17 games – their RPI and their seeding.
If the 2011 team with Courtney Vandersloot is GU’s touchstone for postseason excellence, then this year’s squad gets the “body of work” prize.
“This team grinds things out,” assistant coach Stacy Clinesmith said.
But this is also the Zags’ third straight trip to the NCAAs – the product of Fortier’s leadership, drive, and yes, compassion.
But before she could win games, Fortier needed to win the job. When Kelly Graves took the Oregon job in the spring of 2014, athletic director Mike Roth had several choices.
The safe call would have been an outside hire, someone with head-coaching experience. Fortier didn’t have that; she was 32 and a longtime assistant.
“She had never coached a college basketball game,” Roth said Friday from Salt Lake City, where the Gonzaga men were preparing for a second-round NCAA game under the direction of another in-house hire, Mark Few.
And don’t forget about the baseball program, which didn’t miss a beat after Roth moved up assistant coach Mark Machtolf after the retirement of Steve Hertz.
But precedent doesn’t equal prescience, as Roth admitted on Friday.
“I’d love to sit here and pat myself on the back and say I know this, or this,” Roth said.
“But we knew we had a special place and had been able to develop it into a national program,” Roth added. “We knew that that’s our culture, and knew that Lisa had been a part of that culture and could put her own stamp on that.”
Of course, Roth wanted a winner too.
“That fire in the belly,” Roth described in old-school terms. “I knew that Lisa had that,” Roth said.
Fortier took it from there, assembling a staff in a process that was almost magical.
Jordan Green, then an assistant at Idaho, was on a family vacation in Mexico when he got the call. After that, the decision was a “no-brainer,” Green said Friday.
Clinesmith, the former Mead High School star who was on the staff at Santa Clara, took the initiative and called Fortier partly because she had “always pictured Gonzaga as being one of my dream jobs.”
The dream came true.
“Not many people can say they work for an amazing program in their hometown,” Clinesmith said.
The easiest sell was Craig, then an assistant with Eastern Washington men’s coach Jim Hayford.
“Lisa basically told me what was going to happen,” Craig said. “It wasn’t that long of a conversation.”
Then they went to work with a talented, veteran group that included Sunny Greinacher, Keani Albanez and Elle Tinkle, and won the West Coast Conference regular-season title with a 16-2 record.
They fell short in the WCC Tournament and were squirming on the NCAA bubble before making the most of their opportunity.
“It was a fun group,” Craig Fortier said. “Any team that finds a way to advance in the tournament has something special about it, and that team definitely did.
“And you want to recreate that.”
Oh, they just did.
“One thing about this team is the consistency, day in and day out,” Green said. “All year we’ve been there for all 40 minutes, every game.”
For Clinesmith, this year has been about coaching a team “that takes turns being really good today. If Zykera (Rice) is being shut down in the post, then Chandler (Smith) steps up.”
All that work has brought the Zags back to Corvallis. No one has forgotten.
Earlier this week, the good-luck texts came in from the Zags of 2015.
The most poignant came from Emma Wolfram, whose brightest day as a Zag came on that magical day in Corvallis.
“She told me to enjoy every moment,” Smith said. “And to stick together as a team and good things will happen.”
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