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Sports >  Gonzaga women

Tough ending capped a season of perseverance for Gonzaga women

UPDATED: Sat., March 27, 2021

Gonzaga coach Lisa Fortier talks to her team during the Bulldogs’ loss to Belmont in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in San Marcos, Texas.  (Chuck Burton/Associated Press)
Gonzaga coach Lisa Fortier talks to her team during the Bulldogs’ loss to Belmont in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in San Marcos, Texas. (Chuck Burton/Associated Press)

The ending seemed rather unfair, given all that the Gonzaga women had endured this year.

A first-round loss in the NCAA Tournament last week, however, didn’t dampen coach Lisa Fortier’s pride in a season that exceeded expectations.

Some might argue that no one knew what to expect – another reason this season was so special.

It wasn’t defined by numbers, although they were special: 17-1 in the West Coast Conference, 23-4 overall and a No. 14 ranking in the final Associated Press poll.

The Zags were No. 1 in the WCC Tournament as well, after a win for the ages over BYU.

For Fortier, the season was defined by grit and resilience, both of which were tested more than most outsiders knew until her postgame interview Monday, following the NCAA loss to Belmont.

On top of last year’s abrupt cancellation of the NCAAs and the wobbly start to the new season, the Zags also endured a midseason crisis in the locker room.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen with our team,” Fortier said of the crisis of chemistry in the locker room in January.

“There was a lot of private stuff.”

At that point, “We had a choice there about how to respond to the adversity that our team was facing,” Fortier said. “We had some hard practices and hard conversations.”

They paid off.

GU lost only twice more the rest of the year, capping an incredible four-year run that is the best in program history. Seniors Jill Townsend, and Jenn and LeeAnne Wirth go out with an overall mark of 117-18.

In WCC games, the Zags went 66-5, just off the 53-3 mark compiled by the teams of 2008-11 led by Courtney Vandersloot.

Comparisons fail at that point. Before 2014, programs like Gonzaga could bid to host NCAA Tournament games.

The payoff was playing teams like Iowa, UCLA and Louisville in the Kennel as a No. 11 seed, eventually reaching the Elite Eight.

Would that team have reached the Elite Eight in today’s format, with every game played on a hostile court?

We will never know.

Since 2018, the Zags’ postseason luck has been wretched.

That year, a 27-5 squad was stuck with a No. 13 seed and a first-round game at Stanford. A year later, the Bulldogs were shipped to Oregon State as a No. 5 seed after injuries to Townsend and Laura Stockton.

Last year’s 28-3 squad – arguably the best of the last four – lost out on a chance to host NCAA games in the Kennel.

Yet from start to finish, this year’s team endured even more, a season of peaks and valleys that were higher and deeper than usual.

Like every team, it endured the uncertainties of fall camp, the nonconference schedule composed and torn up several times.

Finally, the Zags shipped off to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for a Thanksgiving tournament. At the last minute, first-round opponent Oklahoma pulled out because of COVID-19.

A few days before, organizers banned all fans, a pattern that would endure for most of the season.

“It’s been very disappointing,” the Wirths’ father, Alan, said at the NCAAs. “For the first time in our lives as parents, we don’t have any kids at home, so we can follow our kids around.”

That, too, was hard on the players, who saw their families in the stands for only four games all year.

Having the NCAAs in Texas was a turn of good luck for Katherine Truong of Houston, who saw her daughters, GU players Kayleigh and Kaylynne, play only a few hours away.

“It’s been a long year for everyone,” Katherine Truong said. “But the players, they’ve had to go through so much.”

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