The Gonzaga women’s basketball team is taking self-motivation to a higher level.
Call it the confidence borne of success, but some of the Bulldogs felt disrespected by the West Coast Conference preseason coaches’ poll: GU was picked for first place, but by only two points ahead of BYU.
“We’d have loved to get all the votes across the board … if anything, that’s going to be a motivator,” said senior guard Elle Tinkle. “I’m sure it’ll be in the back of our minds a little bit, but for now we’re just focusing on ourselves.”
Most of all, the Bulldogs are motivated to match last year’s team, which went 26-8, won the WCC regular season and reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament – all under a new coach, Lisa Fortier.
“I was pretty nervous going into it, but I tried not to let that show,” said Fortier, a longtime assistant who took over when Kelly Graves left for Oregon. “I still get nervous, but I think we can continue to do a great job here.”
In fact, the Bulldogs appear to be reloading despite the loss of their two top scorers, Sunny Greinacher and Keani Albanez. Led by all-WCC post Shelby Cheslek, the frontcourt is so deep that Fortier wonders aloud “how we might try to play three posts at a time.”
Cheslek, a 6-foot-5 senior from Pullman, had a breakout season last year, shooting 46 percent from the field and averaging 8.2 rebounds a game. She’ll share the paint with Emma Wolfram, a 6-5 sophomore whose season-long improvement culminated in a team-high 17-point effort in a second-round NCAA win at Oregon State.
“She’s the next=best thing we have as a replacement for Sunny,” Fortier said of Wolfram.
The depth will come from returning redshirts Jill Barta and Kiara Kudron, both of whom can score, Fortier said.
Things are more settled in the backcourt. Point guard Georgia Stirton grew into her role after transferring from North Idaho College, starting all 34 games while averaging 5.7 points and 3.1 assists.
Another all-WCC preseason pick who had a breakout year last season, the 6-2 Tinkle combines scoring (11.7 ppg last year on 44 percent shooting) on the wing.
More talent is on the way. Gonzaga Prep all-state pick Laura Stockton is adjusting to the speed and size of the college game. “There are more arms in the way … but she has the vision and she’s going to be OK,” Fortier said.
Fortier who also expects a contribution from Utah State transfer Makenlee Williams.
“We’re a veteran team compared to last year,” Tinkle said. “The majority of us have already learned the system, and we have kids who are super versatile and work together.”
“We’re far from peaking,” Tinkle said.
However, with all the new talent, Fortier expects that the Bulldogs will struggle to score early in the seaseon. Greinacher and Albanez were high-volume, high-percentage shooters, “and we don’t have the next Sunny,” she said.
In the meantime, the Zags will get by with defense, contesting every shot the way they did during their NCAA run. The wins and the belated recognition will follow.
Fortier, too, saw the preseason poll for what it was: a motivational tool. “If we had gotten all the votes, I probably would have downplayed it,” she said.
Coach June Daugherty’s glass is half full despite losing three starters from last year’s team.
That’s because that’s all the Cougars lost from a squad that finished seventh (7-11) in the Pac-12 and narrowly missed an NCAA tournament berth.
“Our kids took that to heart – we know that we were that close,” said Daugherty, who returns nine letterwinners from a team that finished 17-15 overall. She says the Cougars are “two and three deep at every position” for her ninth season in Pullman.
“That’s a great luxury for a coach to have,” said Daugherty, who has an even bigger one in senior point guard Dawnyella Awa. A fixture in the backcourt since her freshman year, the 5-foot-9 Awa returns more than just her 45 percent shooting average and 2.5 assist average.
“She’s the glue that never gets any credit,” Daugherty said. “She knows the system, knows when to make the big play – and when not to.”
With the departure of leading scorers Lia Galderia and Tia Presley, that chore will fall to senior Mariah Cooks, a 6-1 forward who averaged 7.5 points and 5.3 rebounds.
The Cougars will be young this year, with nine of 14 players being underclassmen.
After posting one of the best seasons in school history, the Eagles will count on sisters Hayley and Delaney Hodgins to keep them there.
“We’ve got two of the best players in the conference,” said coach Wendy Schuller, who, in her 14th season, led Eastern to a 21-12 record that included wins over Florida, Wichita State and Washington State.
Hayley, a 5-10 senior from Pasco, led the Eagles in scoring last year with a 16.3 average. She also pulled down 4.3 rebounds and is a first-team all-Big Sky preseason pick.
Delaney, a 6-foot forward, grew into her role last year as a freshman, playing nearly 29 minutes a game while averaging 10.5 points and 4.7 boards.
The Eagles will be young this year; Hayley Hodgins is the lone senior, and nine of the 12 players on the roster are underclassmen. However, Eastern should be helped by the new Big Sky postseason format, in which all 12 teams will advance to the conference tournament in Reno.
Junior college transfer Ashli Payne is expected to bring immediate help at forward.
After earning back-to-back NCAA appearances in the Sun Belt Conference, the Vandals found it tough going last year in their first season in the Big Sky; Idaho went 14-15 overall and 8-8 in the conference, just missing a spot in the postseason tournament.
This year, the Vandals are picked to finish sixth by the coaches and eighth by the media.
“Whether we are picked first, sixth, eight or whatever, you still have to go out and win games,” coach Jon Newlee said. “That is the bottom line. This will give us a bit of motivation, getting picked down in the pack.”
With 11 returning players – four of them starters – Idaho figures to improve. Seniors Christina Salvatore (9.4 points a gane) and Ali Forde (9.4) are the top returning scorers.
The team opens the regular season at home against UC Santa Barbara on Nov. 15.
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