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Gonzaga women’s basketball battles roster questions, hoping to maintain winning identity

By Jim Allen For The Spokesman-Review

The Gonzaga women’s basketball program may have lost four starters from last year’s squad, but it hasn’t lost its identity.

Coach Lisa Fortier made that clear as her players warmed up Monday morning on the Kennel floor.

“Will it look different? Sure,” Fortier said of this year’s offense. “Over the last nine years it’s the same offense, but every year we’re doing things a little bit differently.”

“It’s still evolving,” said Fortier, who led GU to a 27-7 record last year and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

More than anything, that’s been the Zags’ identity: winning.

However, the Zags face more than the usual questions this year. Going into the first week of practice, it appears that only point guard Kayleigh Truong and forward Yvonne Ejim are surefire starters; however, Fortier and her staff have plenty of options at almost every position.

“I’m excited to be here,” said Fortier, now in her eighth year as head coach. “These guys are fun to work with, and I think they’re working hard to be ready for their new roles.”

“We’ll see when things get hard how they respond, but right now it’s really fun to have them out there,” Fortier said.

The coaches’ job is a bit easier because only 12 players are on the roster.

“We were unwilling to take a gamble on some players who we didn’t think were the right fit for our program,” Fortier said of the transfer portal.

“We got some that we really wanted, and we didn’t get some that we wanted a lot – and that’s one reason why our numbers are a little light.”

One player, wing Bree Salenbien, is still recovering from a knee injury suffered in March.

On Monday, Salenbien worked through drills with her teammates, but she’s not yet cleared for contact and sharp cuts on the floor.

That leaves 11 players – and a lot of questions.

The Zags must replace starters Melody Kempton, Anamaria Virjoghe, Cierra Walker and Abby O’Connor.

The challenge isn’t as daunting as it first appears, however, because Ejim and Kaylynne Truong played starter minutes anyway.

In the backcourt, Kaylynne Truong’s skill set is similar to her sister’s, though both could start.

“I’m hoping,” Kayleigh Truong said Monday. “She’s my best friend, so it feels good to have more time on the court together.”

Fortier and her staff need a consistent outside shooter to replace Walker, and it’s unclear who will fill that role.

Redshirt freshmen Calli Stokes and Payton Muma will get a chance to make an impact; so will Brynna Maxwell, a grad transfer from Utah.

A 6-footer with two years of eligibility remaining, Maxwell shot 38% from long range last year to help the Utes reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 11 years.

In the frontcourt, Eliza Hollingsworth and Maud Huijbens appear to have the best chance of seeing significant time, or even starting.

Both are 6-foot-3, but the similarity stops there. Hollingsworth, a redshirt junior, is a strong outside shooter but looked uncomfortable at times in the paint. Huijbens is a strong force inside but struggled at times in passing the ball.

Another freshman, Esther Little, saw limited playing time last year. Also in the mix is junior college transfer Destiny Burton.

Redshirt freshmen Calli Stokes and Payton Muma will get a chance to make an impact in the backcourt.

Wing McKayla Williams, a four-star signee two years ago out of Los Angeles, got double-digit minutes last season and impressed Fortier with her defense.

Fans will get their first chance to see this year’s Zags on Oct. 15, when GU hosts the Numerica FanFest at the Kennel.