If adversity builds character, the Gonzaga women should be among the toughest teams in the nation next season.
Frankly, coach Lisa Fortier would rather have a few more wins. Instead, her staff and players were tested through injuries, a tougher-than-expected conference schedule and a quartet of one-point losses.
It was a perfect storm, one which the Bulldogs weathered to a 19-14 record. That’s not bad, unless you’re Gonzaga.
“Going into the season, we had such high hopes,” said Fortier, who was coming off a 26-8 season and a spot in the Sweet 16. “Some years, you don’t come off such a great year and with the cupboard fully loaded.”
It didn’t stay that way for long. Even as returnees Emma Wolfram and Shaniqua Nilles healed from off-season injuries, the Bulldogs lost all-conference guard Elle Tinkle to a season-ending meniscus injury. Then Wolfram was unable to recover from a knee injury, and suddenly, through necessity, the Bulldogs had to reinvent themselves.
“You spend a lot of time in the off-season figuring out what you’re going to be able to do with the players you have returning,” said Fortier, who had alrady lost top scorers Sunny Greinacher and Keani Albanez to graduation.
The loss of Tinkle and Wolfram – one-third of the way through the season – meant substantial playbook changes, especially on the offensive end.
“You have to figure out how to make up for a lot of offense that’s missing,” Fortier said.
Meanwhile, the 11-time West Coast Conference champs still had the target on their backs as the league improved to eighth nationally in conference RPI ratings. That meant a tough game almost every night.
The toughest came on Jan. 30 at San Francisco, where the Bulldogs hadn’t lost since 2003. After a 71-52 loss – GU’s fifth in six games – the goals changed.
So did the players’ attitude.
“We changed our mentality, and our practices became more intense. All of us were forced to look at ourselves,” said Fortier, who also took a hard look at her starting lineup.
Redshirt freshman forward Jill Barta – the team’s leading scorer even while coming off the bench – became a starter. The Bulldogs still got a spark off the other reserves, including true freshmen Laura Stockton, Zhané Templeton and Zykera Rice.
A 5-5 finish included two one-point losses but also a game that Fortier calls one of her favorites: a 73-55 drubbing of WCC regular-season champ BYU – on Senior Night, no less.
“The way they executed the game plan, they couldn’t have done a better job,” Fortier said as she began to look toward next year.
“I’m excited – I think our team is going to look a little different,” said Fortier, who loses shot-blocking and rebounding machine Shelby Cheslek, plus Nilles, point guard Georgia Stirton and Chelsea Waters.
The first piece will be Tinkle, who has petitioned the NCAA for another year of eligibility.
“She meets all the criteria,” said Fortier, who expects to get an answer in May.
The Bulldogs will have a wealth of talent in the back court. Stockton looks ready to start at the point. Emma Stach returns at shooting guard, where she’ll be pushed by Templeton and Utah State transfer Makenlee Williams.
Another intriguing newcomer is Brewster, Washington, native Chandler Smith, a 6-foot wing who sat out last year after transferring from Nebraska.
Up front, the Bulldogs will be faster. Senior-to-be Kiara Kudron – who missed most of the WCC season with a wrist injury – is a strong defender, while Barta brings scoring punch and Wolfram and Zykera Rice offer a little of both.
“It’s going to be fun, and I think we can be a great offensive team,” Fortier said. “We have point guards who can push the tempo and shooters who can spot up – and we have bigs who can run and guards who can do different things in transition.”
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