This is Melody Kempton’s team now, and she’s ready to lead.
Actually, Kempton has been doing that at Gonzaga for the past three years – leading by example, fighting for the toughest rebounds and diving to the floor for loose balls.
“Just doing what it takes,” Kempton said.
This year it will take a little more. The Zags are in rebuild mode and Kempton figures to be the cornerstone if they’re to win another West Coast Conference title.
A 6-foot-1 forward from Post Falls, Kempton is raising her game and raising her voice.
“I’ve been trying to grow my leadership skills,” said Kempton, who has taken leadership classes throughout her career at GU. “I think leadership is understanding how everybody takes feedback differently.”
The Zags got a different kind of feedback recently from the coaches of the WCC. The Zags went 23-4 overall last year and have won 16 of the past 17 regular-season titles, but they’re picked to finish second behind BYU.
Kempton wasn’t surprised – GU lost the Wirth sisters and Jill Townsend to graduation while BYU has everyone back – but it’s motivation enough.
“We have that gritty feeling of wanting to prove people wrong,” Kempton said. “This team is like no other team I’ve been on … the chemistry is very different, and I would take a bullet for this team.”
That chemistry will be important.
The graduation of forwards Jenn and LeeAnne Wirth and wing Townsend leaves plenty of openings for less experienced players, including five incoming freshmen and several returnees who saw limited minutes last season.
“It’s truly wide open,” coach Lisa Fortier said as fall camp opened. “I know we always say that, and we coach them that way, but we only have two players who have (regularly) started.”
That would be guards Cierra Walker and Kayleigh Truong, though Kempton (6.6 points per game and 3.6 rebounds per game last season) logged big minutes off the bench and also figures to start.
The biggest question: Assuming a three-guard lineup, who will join Kempton in the paint? That could be sophomore Yvonne Ejim, but like Kempton she lacks an outside shot.
That could open the door for redshirt sophomore Eliza Hollingsworth, who showed her versatility after missing almost two seasons.
Another key returnee is Walker, whose 41% shooting from 3-point range will be even more important because the returning GU bigs don’t appear to present a major outside threat.
Also in the mix are 6-5 senior Anamaria Virjoghe and 6-2 Eliza Hollingsworth, who showed flashes late in the season after losing her freshman year to injury. Newcomers include Maud Huijbens, a 6-5 transfer forward from Syracuse; and Esther Little, a 6-2 guard-forward from England with more than 50 games’ worth of international experience.
The backcourt appears more settled, though much will depend on the shooting of Walker, a fifth-year senior transfer.
The Truong sisters, Kayleigh and Kaylynne, appear ready to hold down the point, and both have grown into the role.
Newcomers in the backcourt include Payton Muma, a 5-8 guard from Highlands Ranch, Colorado; and Calli Stokes, a 6-foot guard-forward from Redondo Beach, California.
The “X’ factor is freshman Bree Salenbien, a five-star recruit who figures to take over Townsend’s spot on the wing, though she also could see action at the point.
Free-throw shooting could be a concern, as returnees averaged only 65.2% last year.
In addition to the WCC snub, the Zags got no votes in the Associated Press poll. That’s nothing new, and like past squads, this one will need a charge to make some noise.
The biggest opportunity comes Nov. 21, when defending NCAA champion Stanford visits the Kennel. Regional rival Washington State is in town Dec. 8, and of course the Zags will have at least two shots at BYU.
The Zags will be ready, Kempton promised.
“We have a lot of weapons on this team,” Kempton said. “In any game, almost any of us can be the leading scorer.”
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