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Take a trip to Camp Zag: Returners and newcomers built bonds at Gonzaga’s preseason retreat

UPDATED: Fri., Dec. 6, 2019

Picture 6-foot-10, 260-pound Oumar Ballo and 6-11, 235-pound Pavel Zakharov scrambling to hang on while inner tubing on a lake.

Gonzaga basketball players don’t have to imagine. They saw it firsthand at the team retreat a few months ago.

“Seeing those two big boys on there was pretty fun to watch,” junior wing Corey Kispert confirmed.

Added freshman forward Drew Timme: “It definitely might (defy physics). I’m not sure how that one worked, but it was entertaining for sure.”

Preseason retreats are increasingly popular in college sports as programs try various methods to promote chemistry, confidence, collaboration, communication, leadership, problem-solving and team building, not to mention affording players time to learn about one another in a setting outside of their sport.

The latter carried additional importance for the Zags, who had more newcomers (eight) than familiar faces (five) on the roster at the time of the retreat.

“With just a lot of new faces on the team and just to spend the weekend without our cellphones it was a good experience,” freshman forward Anton Watson said. “It helped us get to know each other.”

There wasn’t a rule banning cellphones. It’s just that most of the time they were in places without cell service or they were simply too busy.

Former Gonzaga guard Gary Bell Jr., who graduated in 2015 and returned to the program as a grad assistant this fall, was pleased to learn that the Zags have made preseason retreats an annual practice. The first retreat was prior to Bell’s senior season.

Kevin Pangos, Bell’s backcourt running mate for four seasons, hatched the idea and consulted with Gonzaga professor Josh Armstrong for advice.

“Kev came to me and asked if I’d like to do something like this,” Bell recalled. “I was like, ‘I don’t know, but I think it’ll be good,’ and I went with it. We went to the Elite Eight that year. It’s definitely something that worked.

“We kind of started it, and it is still being used. They’ve taken it to another level.”

The 2015 Zags had a barbecue and hung out without the coaches. The 2017 team went camping, leading to a made-for-social-media picture of 7-1 Przemek Karnowski holding an ax in the North Idaho woods. The current Zags went boating, zip lining and camping. They played spike ball, pickleball and horseshoes.

Zip lining and an obstacle course nudged several Zags outside of their comfort zone.

“I actually don’t like heights,” senior guard Ryan Woolridge said.

“Do any of us?” interjected Timme from an adjacent locker.

“The zip lining and all that stuff, that was not something I was looking forward to,” Woolridge continued. “But everybody went through it, so it was a good time and good team bonding. The zip lining was the worst. The last one that’s a mile long or so, seeing all the trees and everything, if you let go you’re going to be dangling. Everybody did it. It was the only way down or you have to walk all the way back.”

Woolridge, a graduate transfer from North Texas, said the Mean Green spent a day or two at a cabin and participated in a Tough Mudder, an endurance event in which individuals/teams encounter numerous obstacles and challenges over a course typically 3-10 miles long.

“We all did it together and that was a pretty cool deal,” the point guard said. “It was tough.”

Timme acknowledged his fear of heights, but he did complete the obstacle course.

“I did not like that at all,” he said. “Way too high.”

Past Gonzaga squads have gone bowling, to movies or out to dinner during the season to enhance team chemistry. Video game competitions are common.

Retreat exercises, including risk-taking ones, are on the agenda for a reason.

“Absolutely,” responded Kispert, when asked if there’s merit to retreats. “It gets a lot of guys out of their comfort zone and puts them in situations they’re not used to. This year for the guys who have been here, we get used to what everybody is all about.”

Several returning players tried to pull a night-time prank on the newcomers at the camp site.

“I was in the group that was scaring the others,” sophomore forward Filip Petrusev said. “It was me, Killian (Tillie), Corey, Matt (Lang) and Will (Graves). We just stepped out of camp and they didn’t know where we went. We surrounded the camp and starting making noises and throwing things at them.”

“We’re hearing noises and then we hear yelling and knocking,” Woolridge said. “They planned it out, but it was still fun.”

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