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Gonzaga Basketball

‘Not your regular freshman’: Making unexpected start, Dusty Stromer excels for Gonzaga in college debut

Gonzaga guard Dusty Stromer (4) grabs a rebound away from Yale forward Casey Simmons (14) during the second half of a NCAA college basketball game, Friday, Nov. 10, 2023, in the McCarthey Athletic Center.  (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

As they typically do when extracurricular activities overlap, Eric Stromer and Amy Tinkham took a tag-team approach to parenting duties on abnormally busy Friday night.

Eric got up to Spokane for Gonzaga’s season opener against Yale, where the couple’s middle child Dusty was set to make his college basketball debut for the 11th-ranked team in the country.

Amy stayed back in Southern California to watch daughter Willow play a lead act in a high school iteration of the William Shakespeare classic, “Romeo and Juliet.” Willow, a high school junior, was chosen to play the role of Romeo.

“Isn’t that interesting?” Eric Stromer said. “It’s a little turn on things.”

The week was full of those for the Stromers.

On Monday morning, Dusty, a freshman guard for Gonzaga, was expected to come off the bench for Mark Few and the Bulldogs. Midway through the week, The Messenger’s Jeff Goodman revealed that Gonzaga wing Steele Venters – the player Stromer was supposed to back up and learn behind for the next five months – had suffered a season-ending knee injury. Friday evening, “Dusty Stromer” was the third name called over the public address system as GU’s starters were announced moments before tipoff.

“Romeo and Juliet” might have had trouble serving up a plot twist so dramatic.

Stromer may not ease into his college basketball career anymore, but Friday’s performance suggested he probably never needed to. The four-star prospect who chose the Bulldogs over UCLA, Arizona and Houston played 28 minutes in his college debut, scoring eight points to go with three rebounds, one assist and one steal.

“He’s pretty unflappable,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said of the Sherman Oaks, California, product. “He’s got kind of a California cool casualness to him I’m always teasing him about but it serves him well I think in these instances. He was fine. Stepped up and made two big 3s and made all those kind of Dusty plays where he’s tracking down rebounds, poking balls loose.”

Stromer’s debut was the best possible outcome after the unfortunate news involving Venters earlier in the week. Gonzaga confirmed prior to Friday’s game that the Eastern Washington transfer and reigning Big Sky Player of the Year suffered an ACL injury during practice and would miss the remainder of the season.

“There aren’t many positives in Steele’s situation, so it’s a shame, it’s kind of heartbreaking with all the work he’s put in and the decision he made and the courage to do it,” Few said. “But probably more minutes out of Dusty will be a positive for the program and his development. It’s really, really going to help. It kind of forces you into living with a lot of mistakes and things maybe you wouldn’t have to if Steele was out there.”

Gonzaga guard Dusty Stromer (4) tries to stop a shot by Yale center Samson Aletan (10) during the first half of a NCAA college basketball game, Friday, Nov. 10, 2023, in the McCarthey Athletic Center.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Gonzaga guard Dusty Stromer (4) tries to stop a shot by Yale center Samson Aletan (10) during the first half of a NCAA college basketball game, Friday, Nov. 10, 2023, in the McCarthey Athletic Center. (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Stromer was involved in a 10-0 scoring spurt for Gonzaga following the game’s first media timeout – a point when the Bulldogs had fallen into a 16-6 hole. After snatching an offensive rebound, the ball found Stromer’s hands again on a pass from Ryan Nembhard and the freshman rose up to bury a 3-pointer that tied the game at 16.

“Dusty’s been great,” Nembhard said in the postgame news conference. “Being put in a tough situation for his first game, but he’s super active on defense, plays really hard and he’s a spark plug for us.”

The 6-foot-6, 192-pound wing continued to meet the moment on both ends of the floor and mitigated the oft-described “freshman mistakes” that would normally follow a 20-year-old into his first college game.

“It’s very overwhelming, especially for a freshman,” Gonzaga’s Nolan Hickman said. “We all know that, so we all try to help him through the process, especially with the last few days with Steele being out. He’s been doing real good, though, he’s not your regular freshman. The mistakes he makes aren’t what regular freshmen make. A lot of the stuff, he clears it up with his energy. His defensive effort on the defensive end. I feel like he’s going to fit right in.”

Stromer’s composure in his first college start, against a talented Yale team that won the regular-season Ivy League title in 2022-23, wasn’t surprising to some who occupied seats at McCarthey Athletic Center Friday night.

“He loves this so much that he’s been watching videos of people playing basketball since he was 3 years old on an iPad,” Eric Stromer said. “He’s obsessed with it and this is all he loves right now in his life. I think that’s it. It’s just the total love for the game.”

Eric, an actor and television personality who’s appeared on a handful of popular television shows including Top Gear, Rachael Ray and Trading Spaces, sat a few rows behind Gonzaga’s bench after booking last-minute tickets to Spokane earlier in the week.

“It’s a dream come true for a parent to see your kid succeed at any level,” Eric said. “Just to be on this team was enough for me, but to actually be on the court just blew my mind.

“I’m sure I’ll go home after this interview and just break down and cry alone.”

Stromer’s father said he did his best to suppress his emotions and keep a neutral face, “but inside I was a sad clown.”

Eric was flying back to the Los Angeles area on Saturday to catch Willow in another showing of “Romeo and Juliet.”

As far as good theater goes, it’ll be hard to top Friday’s show in Spokane.

“I tell you, there’s a couple little things but now I have to disassociate from having criticism or comment on it because it’s his own life now so I personally think he did really good and I’m so grateful that I could sit here and not freak out,” Eric said. “So, on a selfish level he did really, really good.”