Gonzaga women’s basketball coach Lisa Fortier is a reflection of her team – confident but not cocky, especially in the face of a pandemic.
She even wore a mask during a recent news conference, even though it was conducted on Zoom.
Then again, you can never be too careful – a message that was reinforced this week in college athletics.
Fortier opened a phone interview Wednesday with a cautionary tale from the University of Florida, where earlier this week, football coach Dan Mullen urged fans to pack the stadium for Saturday’s game against archrival Florida State.
Two days later, the game was postponed by a COVID-19 outbreak among Mullen’s players.
Fortier found no humor in that – COVID has been hitting GU basketball since March, when one of the best teams in program history lost out on a near-certain chance to host first- and second-round NCAA Tournament games.
That opportunity lost, the Zags are ready to seize the next one.
Fortier and her staff – unchanged since she took over in 2014 – opened practice Thursday with a group that looks capable of winning another West Coast Conference title.
The WCC hasn’t released its preseason poll, but Gonzaga (28-3 overall, 17-1 WCC last year) will almost certainly be picked to repeat as regular-season champs. The Zags open WCC action on Dec. 28 at Loyola Marymount.
The nonconference schedule is still being cobbled together. Teams are allowed to start play Nov. 25.
GU just got some good news on that front: Washington State will be coming to the Kennel after all – with the date to be announced – following a decision by the Pac-12 Conference to allow its teams to play before New Year’s Day.
No such luck with Stanford, a perennial power and originally scheduled to visit Spokane this year as part of the schools’ ongoing arrangement.
“Not this year, unfortunately, but the series is going to continue next year,” said Fortier, whose team will also play in a Christmas week event in Las Vegas.
The rest of the schedule is expected to be finalized in another week or so, but there’s been little guidance from the NCAA on how many fans – if any – will be allowed to attend.
In the meantime, the Zags have a team that’s built for the COVID times, even the possibility that a player tests positive and must quarantine.
“We’re just all anticipating that it could get crazy with COVID or close contact,” Fortier said.
Talented, deep and versatile, the Zags are also loaded with senior leaders in Jill Townsend and the Wirth sisters, Jenn and LeeAnne.
“Jill has always been a leader and Jenn has been extra vocal,” Fortier said. “Over this past season, she’s taking it to heart to reach out to her teammates, leading drills and talking.
“I’ve called out all three of them in a positive way. I’m thankful that we have such great depth at those positions.”
Townsend and the Wirths will carry a heavy load and will play 25-28 minutes a game. But there’s help on the bench from former Post Falls star Melody Kempton, now a junior; senior wing Louise Forsyth, a strong outside shooter; and 6-foot-5 post Anamaria Virjoghe.
More help is on the way. Asked to pick her candidates for most impactful freshmen, Fortier named Yvonne Ejim, a 6-1 forward from Edmonton, Alberta; and Makayla Williams, who’s also 6-1 but listed as a guard.
Williams, a four-star recruit from Los Angeles, was rated ninth among all high school wings last year by ESPN. Her role on the team figures to be one of the most interesting story lines of camp.
The backcourt looks less settled, but the Zags are flush at both guard spots despite the graduation of point Jessie Loera and ace shooter Katie Campbell.
Kayleigh Truong and Loera started in the backcourt when Campbell was lost to injury late in the season, but Truong is expected to move to her natural spot at point this fall as a sophomore.
Vanderbilt transfer Cierra Walker, a senior, is the favorite to start at shooting guard.
Kaylynne Truong and true freshman Lily Scanlon figure to compete for the spot.
“We have some kids who can shoot,” Fortier said. “I don’t know if we have a Katie, but we have some good shooters.”
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