Gonzaga’s Wirth twins are better together for the Bulldogs
Feb. 10, 2021 Updated Wed., Feb. 10, 2021 at 9:38 p.m.
The Wirth twins, LeeAnne, left, and Jenn, are wrapping up their senior seasons for the 17th-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs, having developed into crowd favorites. (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
No one knows it better than Jill Townsend, their roommate and teammate: Jenn and LeeAnne Wirth are better together, even when they’re fighting.
“The most amazing thing about living with Jenn and LeeAnne is that they’re always arguing,” Townsend said last weekend. “And then they’re making up in about 0.2 seconds.”
It was a good time for reflection. The Zags had just won their 15th straight game. It was a tense, chippy affair with BYU, finally going GU’s way thanks to the leadership from its seniors.
The twins let that one sink in. Then they began finishing each other’s thoughts.
“Everybody tells you that it goes by so fast,” Jenn said. “Now it’s here, and it’s super sad, but these are some great moments.”
“And you really appreciate them, especially this year with everything that’s gone on,” LeeAnne said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken little chunks out of the Wirths’ senior year even before it began. There was last year’s NCAA Tournament cancellation, the tardy, fractured start to the new season – and worst, all those empty seats at the Kennel.
“We really miss our fans,” LeeAnne said. “I say it over and over: There’s not another place like Gonzaga.”
Winning helps. Going into Thursday’s home game against USF, the Zags have won 100 games and lost just 16 since the Wirths arrived on campus in the fall of 2017.
They’re even better against West Coast Conference opponents: 61-4 in the regular season. Most likely, they’ll finish their GU careers next month in the NCAA Tournament in San Antonio.
People have noticed.
“It’s just amazing, just going to the grocery store and people in line start cheering through the plastic screen,” LeeAnne said. “I just feel so lucky to be in this community and on this team.”
Luck didn’t have much to do their success on the court, unless you count the good fortune of having parents, Diane and Alan, who encouraged them, but not too much.
Alan, a former major league pitcher with the Oakland A’s, was one role model; another was older sister Christina, a star at Vanderbilt who later played in the WNBA with the Indiana Fever.
In their hometown of Mesa, Arizona, the siblings’ rivalry came to life with boxing matches on the backyard trampoline, and inevitably on the basketball court.
Practices were frustrating.
“We ended in an argument every single time,” Jenn said. “We’re so competitive. It would end up carrying over off the court for days after.”
But there was no staying off the court, not when you grow 9 inches and are suddenly standing 6-foot-1 as an eighth-grader.
By then, their older siblings had left home.
“I think we grew closer then,” said Jenn, the older by 18 minutes.
They grew even closer, not just from the hours on the court at Seton Catholic High School. Someone had the bright idea of putting the twins on different club teams.
It didn’t work out.
“We were miserable,” LeeAnne said.
By the time they appeared on Gonzaga’s radar, the twins were all-league, all-state and ready to carve their own identity – together.
Arriving in Spokane in the summer of 2017, they were already 6-3. Stature would come later; first they had to compete – inevitably against each other in the battle for scarce playing time on another talented team.
Both got double-digit minutes on the floor, setting up a chance to start at forward alongside senior Zykera Rice – but for only one of them.
That figured to be Jenn, until she fractured a finger and missed the first six games of the 2018-19 season.
“I was working really hard in the offseason, and I wanted that starting position,” Jenn said. “But that was part of God’s plan.
“But I knew (LeeAnn) was working as hard as I was, and she earned the spot.”
By the following year, both were starting, twin posts in every sense of the word.
Equal parts grace and athleticism, each can pirouette in the paint and deliver the ball to the hoop past any defender, then swat down an opponent’s shot at the other end.
“They’re both so skilled, and they’ve gotten stronger,” Zags head coach Lisa Fortier said. “It used to be that they could get pushed more off the block. Now they’re getting down low and holding their own.”
Fortier likens their improvement to that of their former teammate Jill Barta, who developed an inside game to complement her outside shooting.
The twins have done the same in reverse, with a reliable jump shot.
“It’s a great thing for us to have,” Fortier said. “In years past, Jenn was more physical, but they’ve actually become more like each other.”
But Jenn and LeeAnne are twins, not clones, with nuanced differences on and off the court.
Playing more in the low post, Jenn is more assertive, and has half a dozen double-doubles this year to prove it.
Jenn has 14 blocks this season, but she’s also a master of deflection in the postgame presser.
Following another big game, she credited the team’s attitude on the practice court – and of course, her sister.
Because of the pandemic, the Zags aren’t going against men in practice; instead the Wirths are sharpening each other.
They’ll keep grinding until the end, together.
“It’s just so much fun to be on the court with Jenn,” her sister said. “We love all of our teammates, but there is something special about this.”
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