Like everyone else in the world, the Gonzaga women’s basketball players are craving a little normalcy.
It’s finally here.
As warmups ended on Friday, senior Melody Kempton gathered the players in the middle of court at the Volkar Center. Everyone cheered.
“It’s been a long time,” coach Lisa Fortier said as she surveyed the scene at the Volkar Center on the second day of practice. “Sometimes we have to remind ourselves of what normal is because it’s been so long.”
Fortier noted that Kempton, a senior forward from Post Falls, is the only player on the roster who’s experienced a full season at GU without any pandemic distractions.
That was back in the spring of 2019. Since then, the Zags have ridden the ups and downs of fanless games, masking protocols and isolation – all the way through March Madness.
Now it’s time to exhale, take another breath and hit the court.
The pieces are finally coming together for what could be a reasonably normal season at Gonzaga. Plans are for full capacity at the McCarthey Athletic Center, where the women will hold their annual Fan Fest on Oct. 16.
Two weeks later, on Nov. 6, the Zags will host an exhibition season against Central Washington. Five days after that, the regular season opens at home against Montana State – pretty normal stuff by recent standards.
Perhaps the least normal aspect this season is the Zags themselves. They never talk in terms of rebuilding at GU, which has won 16 of the last 17 regular-season women’s titles in the West Coast Conference, but this year feels different.
“It’s truly wide open,” said Fortier, who guided GU to a 23-4 overall record last year. “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. Kempton also has the inside track to a starting spot.
That leaves plenty of opportunities for others.
The graduation of forwards Jenn and LeeAnne Wirth and wing Jill Townsend leaves plenty of openings for less experienced players , including five incoming freshmen and several returnees who saw limited minutes last year.
One of them is Abby O’Connor, a graduate transfer who spelled Townsend last year on the wing.
O’Connor said she appreciates the near-normal of the new school year – “like being able to go to athletic events” – but also the opportunity to step up.
“I learned a lot from Townie last year – the way she plays and how physical she is,” O’Connor said.
“This group has been really fun,” said O’Connor, who gained another year of eligibility because the pandemic.
Another key returnee is shooting guard Walker, whose 41% shooting from long range will be even more important because the returning GU bigs don’t appear to present a major outside threat.
“It’s feeling really good,” Walker said after draining a few 3s during warmups. “I think we have really good chemistry on this team.”
A senior, Walker said she was excited by what the new freshmen could deliver. “They’re already getting on board with the tempo and pace,” she said.
Junior Kaylynne Truong, who figures to back up her sister at the point, concurred.
“They’re great players,” she said of the freshmen. “They don’t have anything to prove to us.”
Also on the court was freshman Bree Salenbien, the first five-star recruit in program history.
“It really is a dream come true,” said the 6-foot-3 Salenbien, who figures to compete at guard or wing.
“I just want to help any way I can, and work with some great role models,” Salenbien said.
In the frontcourt, returnee Yvonne Ejim is coming off a solid freshman year highlighted by a 13-point, 9-rebound effort in the WCC title game and also will compete.
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. 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.
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.
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