Some coaches play coy when talking about their team during preseason interviews.
Gonzaga women’s basketball coach Lisa Fortier isn’t in that camp – at least not this year.
Fortier stood on the McCarthey Athletic Center court and said a few words to those attending the team’s FanFest a couple of weeks ago: “We’re really good this year.”
How good? If things prove out, the 2023-24 team will be the best team Fortier has had in 10 years as head coach.
If that is the final result, there will be a number of factors involved. But none likely more important than Fortier’s four returning graduates.
Twins Kaylynne and Kayleigh Truong, Brynna Maxwell and Eliza Hollingsworth didn’t plan to come back together, but Fortier is grateful nonetheless.
Each one has a burning desire to make how the season ended back in March a distant memory.
The twins, essentially two point guards who can shoot, want to start a final season together. They started the first four games together a year ago until a foot injury kept Kayleigh out for 12 weeks during the heart of the year. She watched from the bench as her sister earned West Coast Conference Player of the Year, averaging 15.8 points and 5.1 assists per game.
“The big thing for me is being grateful for what I have right now,” Kaylynne said. “Unfortunately, last year we were going to share the court together. In the beginning you saw that. With “Leigh” being out, I missed playing with her. This year, I’m just praying that everyone on the team stays healthy so we can have a great season.”
“Our mom is reminding us to take it in, take it in, because it’s our last year here,” Kayleigh said.
Maxwell and Hollingsworth are the other two graduate returners who started last year.
The graduates got a jump-start on redemption in August when the Zags got 10 extra practices and played three games in Greece and Croatia. Certainly, it was a team bonding experience, but it put Gonzaga ahead of where it was the previous year.
The returners feel rested and refreshed after grinding much of the 2022-23 season with a handcuffed roster much of the way. Still, the Zags finished 28-5 overall, won another WCC title (17-1) and earned an NCAA Tournament at-large berth after losing to Portland in the WCC Tournament title game.
The Zags didn’t say it at the time, because they weren’t grasping at excuses. But the vantage point of hindsight often provides clarity.
“We were definitely grateful that we even made the tournament (after the loss to Portland),” Kaylynne said. “This year we want to go further. … It’s just a good motivator to us. I know a lot of things last season were uncontrollable – injuries, sickness. It was a good thing just being able to move forward, having people play out of position.”
At the moment, the Zags have plenty of skills at their disposal.
“Last year, it felt like we were in the trenches and we wanted to get to the end,” Kayleigh said. “We were like, ‘Oh, let’s just get to postseason,’ so we weren’t focusing on one game at a time. We were trying to bypass the storm instead of staying in it, staying focused.”
Lack of focus is one thing that won’t be tolerated. The graduates, along with senior Yvonne Ejim, are part of a senior leadership team that meets with Fortier each Monday to discuss successes or issues.
“They’ve actually kind of taken it on for themselves as a leadership council. That’s what they’re calling themselves,” Fortier said.
Maxwell led the nation in 3-point shooting most of last year and she’ll definitely be a threat to knock down a long-range shot at any time. She said the graduates never talked about returning together.
“Everyone kind of had their own way of figuring it out,” she said. “The consensus was we all wanted to come back.”
Maxwell doesn’t know how opponents will decide to defend the Zags. All she knows is she wouldn’t want to try to draw up a plan.
“I think we have the potential to be very, very good,” Maxwell said. “I don’t know how you draw up a scout against us. We have so many threats. Our biggest opponent will be ourselves. But we’ve got to prove it on the court. If we don’t go out and prove it, it means nothing.”
Hollingsworth isn’t looking any further ahead than the next practice – or next possession in practice.
“I don’t want to leave a game wishing I had given more,” Hollingsworth said. “I don’t want to have any regrets.”
That’s a common sentiment shared among the graduates.