The mood in the Herak Club Room was bubbly, antsy and hopeful.
Much different than in 2022 when Gonzaga failed to make the NCAA Tournament.
“We’ve sat in this room twice now … just kind of hoping, hoping, hoping that it could happen,” head coach Chris Watkins said. “So, we’re really excited. And I couldn’t help but be excited and smile. We’ve worked so hard to get this one. And I’m just so proud of our girls, just watching their faces, it’s why you’re in this business. It’s so fun to be a part of a group that works hard and that’s rewarded for their hard work.”
The Bulldogs earned a date with the Idaho Vandals on Saturday at 5 p.m. at GU’s Luger Field in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
This will be the first matchup between the two schools since GU hosted the Vandals in 2014, a 5-0 win for the Zags.
“It’s huge to know that the Gonzaga community gets to see us in that environment, not just on TV, but in person,” junior goalkeeper Lauren Towne said. “And obviously, we always perform better when our stands are packed. And so, it’s great, it’s amazing.”
Both the men’s and women’s GU teams use Luger Field, so the natural grass pitch is slightly larger than what the Vandals are used to playing on.
“It’s more space than we are accustomed to,” Idaho head coach Jeremy Clevenger said.
While the GU players were patiently waiting, they had a level of comfort knowing their name would flash on the screen in front of them. But that didn’t decrease the nervous memory from last season.
“Even though we knew we were going to be in there, I was holding my breath the entire time,” Towne said. “It’s just, super exciting. You have flashbacks to the years before and you’re waiting and waiting and waiting. So even though we’re waiting, and we know, it still sucks. But it’s great.”
The guarantee was due to the Bulldogs’ dramatic 3-1 victory over Pepperdine last Saturday which locked up the first West Coast Conference title in school history and a second trip to the NCAA Tournament.
The Bulldogs will have an advantage by playing at home, but both teams were outwardly confident and have said they are approaching this game like any other.
The Zags said they will go through a normal week of preparation, with each player sticking to their standard routine, redshirt senior Maddie Kemp.
Towne agreed, saying their culture will continue to carry them.
“What we’ve been doing all season, just trusting ourselves, trusting in the way we play,” Towne said. “And going out there and playing every game like it’s our last … we’re going to leave it all out there.”
As for Idaho, the team is coming to Spokane off a 2-1 win over Northern Arizona University when redshirt freshman Naomi Alvarez scored the winning goal in the Big Sky Championship on Sunday.
She reiterated the Vandals’ confidence that has encompassed the past three months.
“I don’t think any of us are nervous,” Alvarez said. After losing in the Big Sky championship game a year ago to NAU, the Vandals were “100 percent” focused all season on avenging that loss, she said.
The Vandals, unlike the Zags, are making their first tournament appearance.
“Our players really did go in with the mentality that we were going to win,” Clevenger said. “Their mentality going in was very focused.”
That focus has given them a first-round matchup against the high-scoring Bulldogs.
“We are excited,” Clevenger said. “It is going to be a tough game. They have a pretty good attack. But our players are excited for it, and we have a good chance of winning.”
The Zags and Vandals have met 15 times, the fifth-most nonconference matchup for the Bulldogs behind Washington State, Washington, Eastern Washington and Oregon State.
Some years there is some familiarity between the two clubs as preseason scrimmages are common, yet according to Watkins, that didn’t happen this year.
Clevenger said the players have gone head-to-head in high school and at the club level, so there will be some familiar faces running around for both squads.
Each university has a strong culture that revolves around their coaches.
“Our culture is very tight,” Clevenger said who is in his sixth season at the helm. “We love, believe in, and support each other.”
GU’s Watkins has been in Spokane for seven years, taking over a program that had been scuffling for years.
Watkins has made the tournament 18 times, but this one was uniquely special because of the growth he has seen in the program since he took over in 2017.
When the final horn rang out in the win over Pepperdine, the GU players all took turns giving Watkins a hug.
It was a special moment that had a lot of weight behind it.
“I really can’t put it into words,” Towne said. “Coach is great. He’s believed in every single one of us. He believed in me. He means the world to me. And he’s earned every bit of this. And I know going into that game, whether people said it or not, a lot of us played for him. And that was a big reason. And I hope, I’m sure he felt that, but it really felt amazing to give him that hug after the game.”