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From Australia to Romania, Gonzaga women’s basketball has always had an ‘in’ with top international talent

UPDATED: Fri., Nov. 1, 2019

Gonzaga head coach Lisa Fortier watches her team during a practice on Monday, July 29, 2019, at Gonzaga. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga head coach Lisa Fortier watches her team during a practice on Monday, July 29, 2019, at Gonzaga. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

According to Gonzaga women’s basketball coach Lisa Fortier, one of the best things about foreign athletes is they don’t know the difference between a midmajor and a drum major.

And while American teens know that GU doesn’t have a football team or a marching band, Australians and Canadians could not care less.

“They just look at the school for what it is,” said Fortier, whose program has found success partly by just being itself: unpretentious and family-oriented, with a near-perfect graduation rate for its student-athletes.

Winning matters, too, but that takes care of itself when your players aren’t homesick and pining to go back to Australia or Germany for the holidays.

“They’ll go home with a teammate or to a coach’s house – it feels like they have a family here,” Fortier said. “That’s why we’ve done so well with foreign players.”

The Zags always seem to have a few of them on the roster. This year they have three: Anamaria Virjoghe of Romania, Canadian Louise Forsyth and Australian Eliza Hollingsworth.

All expect to play this season, but they all liked Gonzaga before they set foot on campus, thanks to a commitment to foreign players that goes back to Fortier’s days as an assistant under Kelly Graves.

It began even before Fortier joined the program as coordinator of basketball operations in 2004.

Already in the fold were Ashley Burke of Canada and Delfine Lacoultere of France. Both were key pieces of the breakthrough season of 2004-05, when the Zags went 28-4 and won their first of 14 West Coast Conference titles.

A few years later, Canadian Janelle Bekkering was an All-WCC player and a major part of the squad that reached the Elite Eight in 2011.

Four years later, in Fortier’s first year as head coach, Sunny Greinacher of Germany closed out a stellar career in 2015 by leading the Zags to their 11th straight WCC title, a pair of upset wins in the NCAA Tournament and a spot in the Sweet 16.

By then the word had spread, often through word of mouth. On the bench that year was redshirt freshman guard Emma Stach – another German who wanted better competition and a college education in the United States.

Stach found her way to GU partly by seeking out Greinacher.

“Sunny told me how much she liked it there,” said Stach, who took her official visit that year and “fell in love” with the GU campus and the family atmosphere in the locker room.

It was the same for post Emma Wolfram in 2013. One of Graves’ last recruits , Wolfram was one of the top youth players in Canada that year and led the national U17 team to a bronze medal at the world championships in Europe.

She had other choices, but Wolfram knew of the successes of Bekkering, who hailed from neighboring Alberta.

A few years later, the Zags were recruiting Forsyth, another British Columbian.

Now a junior, Forsyth had a great official visit – “a scrimmage with the girls and breakfast at the Calico Kitchen,” she recalls – but Wolfram helped seal the deal.

“Having Emma here helped a lot,” said Forsyth, who had been following Wolfram for years. “She was one of the top players coming out, so it was cool to see her here.”

Word of mouth also reaches halfway around the world.

Another member of Fortier’s first team, point guard Georgia Stirton, was back home in Melbourne when she got a phone call last year from Hollingsworth.

“I actually had heard of her before,” said Hollingsworth, who’s also from Melbourne. “I called her before my visit, and she just thought the world of Gonzaga.”

Stirton took the less-beaten path to GU. Unrecruited but eager to play in the States, she sent emails to 200 schools. The first to respond was North Idaho College, which offered a scholarship.

Two years later, Stirton was a junior college All-America, and Fortier was a new head coach in need of a point guard. It wasn’t easy.

“I felt like an outsider, trying to prove that I was good enough.” Stirton said in 2016. “It’s amazing how much you can do when you’re pushed out of your comfort zone.”

It’s the same for coaches. Before becoming head coach, Fortier took a recruiting trip to Germany, partly to recruit Greinacher.

Her travel partner was her husband, Craig, then an assistant coach with the men’s program at Eastern Washington.

“I remember jumping on the Autobahn, the trains, going our separate ways and then getting back together,” Fortier said.

The trip had a happy ending. The Fortiers’ return flight was mistakenly booked for a day later than planned.

“That gave us an extra day together in Berlin,” Fortier said.

It also gave GU the services of Greinacher, the No. 15 scorer in school history.

That was the reward for hard work. The recruiting rules are different overseas. Youth sports are run through local clubs rather than high schools.

“It’s against the rules to watch club games,” said Fortier, who like her rivals relies mostly on film and in-home interviews to assess foreign players.

That’s harder than it sounds. Cultural differences are subtle, and it takes a keen eye to pick them out.

“Players from different countries respond differently to coaching, and Australian kids and different from Canadians,” Fortier said. “Then again, Texas kids are different than California kids.”

The work is also daunting for the recruits.

Hollingsworth had already played internationally on the Australian U16 and U17 national teams, so she knew the landscape of American collegiate basketball.

The idea of sifting through 350 Division I schools was such a daunting task, she decided to focus on her homework – her real homework.

“I had to study, because your (academic) future really depends on how you do in the last year of school,” Hollingsworth said.

The basketball research fell to her father, Brad.

“Basically, the colleges would contact me through social media, like Facebook Messenger, Instagram or Twitter,” Hollingsworth said.

The deal was sealed during her official visit – 10,000 miles from home.

“I really wanted a family away from family,” Hollingsworth said. “I instantly clicked with all the girls and also with the coaches. It was all so very inclusive.”

That will get Hollingsworth through the bouts of homesickness and Spokane weather (it was 72 degrees in Melbourne on Friday).

“This was just the obvious choice,” Hollingsworth said.

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