Did Gonzaga really lose three starters from last year?
Officially, the answer is yes: Zykera Rice, Chandler Smith and Laura Stockton are gone.
However, it doesn’t feel that way, thanks to head coach Lisa Fortier’s habit of playing deep into her bench.
Eight returnees averaged at least 20 minutes last season, and two of them – forward Jenn Wirth and wing Jill Townsend – came off the bench so impressively that they made this year’s West Coast Conference preseason team.
“I think we have a lot of potential,” Fortier said as practice began earlier this month.
Katie Campbell was one of the best 3-point shooters in the land last season (hitting 63 of 140 shots for a 45% average).
Close behind at 44% was Townsend, whose ugly leg injury this past March in the WCC Tournament left many wondering about her future.
“That’s one of the biggest questions I’ve gotten – how is Jill?” Fortier said.
She’s just fine, thanks, and hoping to start. “That’s what every player wants, right?” said Townsend, a 5-11 junior from Okanogan who’s the most versatile player in the lineup.
Last year she ranked second in scoring (9.8 ppg) and fourth in rebounding (4.7) while playing almost 22 minutes a game.
Complementing them both is senior point guard Jessie Loera, who ranked third in minutes played last year while backing up Stockton.
Quick to push the ball upcourt and with an improved sense of the half-court game, Loera also shot 33% from long range and her assist-to-turnover ratio was almost 2:1.
Rice will be hard to replace. As a senior she led the Zags in scoring (15 ppg) and rebounding (5.8 rpg). She also brought tenacity and physicality in the paint, traits that Jenn Wirth is still perfecting.
“I learned a lot from Zykera, especially her toughness,” said the 6-foot-3 Wirth (8.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg), who will inherit a lot of scrutiny along with Rice’s starting spot.
“It’s different when you get all the attention,” Fortier said. “It’s brutal in the post, but Jenn is practicing very strong, very assertively – like a better version of Jenn.”
Wirth will be joined by twin sister LeeAnne, who started every game last year and made a big impression on the defensive end while averaging 6.5 points and 4.6 boards.
“We feel comfortable with her guarding anybody,” Fortier said. “Jenn has a stronger body and is a little bit more assertive, but LeeAnne is more perceptive and open to what else is going on.”
The wild card in the paint is Anamaria Virjoghe, a 6-foot-5 transfer from NAIA Northwest Christian.
“She learned a lot last year while redshirting,” said Fortier, who also got big minutes off the bench from former Post Falls star Melody Kempton.
There’s plenty of talent on the bench. Junior Louise Forsyth is a strong spot-up shooter (46% from beyond the arc last year) with high energy but needs to cut down on her fouls.
Fortier also will count on the Truong twins, Kayleigh and Kaylynne, freshmen who may be the backcourt of the future.
In the frontcourt are seldom-used junior Gillian Barfield and true freshman Eliza Hollingsworth, a 6-2 international from Australia.
However, depth took a hit during fall camp when redshirt freshman Kylee Griffen suffered a season-ending injury.
Five years after being promoted from assistant, Fortier not only has been a consistent winner, she’s managed to keep her young staff intact.
Last year’s season was one of the best in school history: a 29-5 record, fourth straight West Coast Conference regular-season title and a program-best No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The title was Gonzaga’s fourth under Fortier, who has a 73-17 record in the WCC and is 127-40 overall.
If Gonzaga doesn’t have the glitziest nonconference schedule this year, it’s not for lack of trying.
“For whatever reason, people don’t like coming to the Kennel,” said Fortier.
The exception is Stanford, but that rivalry goes back to the Bay Area this year. The Zags’ other high-profile nonconference games will be in late November at the Gulf Coast Showcase in Florida, where Gonzaga will face Dayton and possibly Auburn, Purdue or Arizona State.
The biggest nonconference home game is Dec. 20 against Missouri State, which returns 12 players from last year’s Sweet 16 team. Other potential pitfalls are Dec. 8 at Washington State and nine days later at Wyoming.
GU’s WCC opener is Jan. 2 at BYU, which beat the Zags three times last year.
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