Only three weeks after the end of the season, the Gonzaga women are looking ahead to the next one.
So are their fans, through perhaps through a different prism, as in “What’s the starting 5?”
Coach Lisa Fortier can’t answer that one – who could in mid-April? – but she’s confident the Zags will be competitive despite the loss of one of the most impactful group of seniors in recent history.
“I think we’ll be OK,” Fortier said last week as the Zags began offseason conditioning sessions following a 23-4 season that included West Coast Conference regular-season and tournament titles.
That’s nothing new – GU has won 15 of the last 16 regular-season titles under Fortier and her predecessor, Kelly Graves.
But gone are wing Jill Townsend and forwards Jenn and LeeAnne Wirth, who helped the Zags win 4 straight WCC titles while accounting for almost half the team’s scoring and rebounding last season.
The Zags also will need one or more players to step up emotionally. Last year, Townsend was the only player who absolutely wanted the ball in her hands when it mattered most.
“We need people who want to make the plays,” Fortier said
However, the rebuilding project isn’t as daunting as it appears, thanks to a solid group of veterans in the backcourt and Fortier’s practice of giving heavy minutes to her top reserves.
That should pay off next year in the frontcourt, where forward Melody Kempton of Post Falls has brought energy and physicality to the low post.
Going into her senior year, the 6-foot-1 Kempton is as consistent as it gets. Last year she averaged 6.6 points and 3.6 rebounds in 18 minutes of action.
Yvonne Ejim is coming off a solid freshman year highlighted by a 13-point, nine-rebound effort in the WCC title game and should compete for a starting spot.
Also in the mix are 6-5 Anamaria Virjoghe and 6-2 Eliza Hollingsworth, who showed flashes late in the season after losing her freshman year to injury.
However, none of the returnees has a strong outside shot, a weapon the Wirths used to keep opposing teams off balance.
“Mel and Vonn are working on developing their outside shots,” Fortier said. “It’s my job to figure out how to use them.”
Things are more solid in the backcourt, where Cierra Walker is back and twins Kayleigh and Kaylynne Truong go into their junior year.
“Kaylynne took another jump in confidence last year,” Fortier said. “Kayleigh developed more defensively, and she’s a strong defender going forward.”
However with that maturity will come more attention from opposing defenses.
“None of them have had that primary role,” Fortier said.
“It’s an opportunity, but it’s also interesting when you move up,” said Fortier, who as a head coached watched the maturations of players like Jill Barta, Zykera Rice and the Wirth sisters as well as Townsend.
Of the returnees, Fortier said that “none of them have had that primary role.”
“It’s a little bit different to be the hunted,” Fortier said.
Also back are Makayla Williams and Kylee Griffen, though the latter has missed 2 straight seasons with injury.
The Zags lose freshman guard Lily Scanlon, who has returned to her native Australia to play professionally.
Perhaps the most intriguing position is Townsend’s old spot, the wing. Abby O’Connor is the top candidate, but much is expected of incoming freshman Bree Salenbein.
The 6-foot-3 Salenbein, the first 5-star recruit in program history, has strong hall-handling skills and is expected to play guard or wing.
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