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Gonzaga women: Bulldogs primed for another run at NCAA Tournament berth

If good things come in threes, the Gonzaga women already have a head start.

The Zags are going for their third straight West Coast Conference regular-season and tournament titles, and they have just the personnel to do it.

The leaders are three senior captains – Laura Stockton, Zykera Rice and Chandler Smith – who couldn’t be more different, but are focused on the same goal: a third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament.

GU has all the ingredients for another big season. Fifth-year coach Lisa Fortier has what she calls a “heady, experienced” group that also will show more speed than usual, thanks to a three-guard lineup.

And if those players can step up and consistently hit from three-point range, it will be a season to remember.

Backcourt

Look for the pace to pick up this season at the Kennel and everywhere else the Zags play.

With the aim of starting the best players on the court, Fortier and her coaches will put point guards Stockton and Jessie Loera on the court at the same time.

Both can run the court, and at 5-8, Stockton (6.6 points and 3.8 assists per game last year) is big enough “that she’s not going to get posted up,” Fortier said.

The 5-6 Loera, a fan favorite and the quickest player on the team, averaged 6.2 points and a team-best 2.1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

“I think we can be fast,” said Fortier, who also will count on versatile wing Chandler Smith (9.4 points, 5.7 rebounds per game last season) for ball-handling duties.

Frontcourt

Rice, a 6-foot-1 senior forward, has been an inside presence for two years. Now she’s poised to be even more.

“She’s spent a lot of time in the weight room,” Fortier said. “Senior year, you have a different mentality. Sometimes that mentality makes a huge difference, but so far in practice she’s definitely making things look easy.”

Playing every game last season, Rice averaged 11.7 points and 5.2 rebounds. Expect those numbers to go up with the early departure of Jill Barta, last year’s leading scorer and rebounder.

That’s important, said Fortier, who noted that for three years in a row, the Zags have entered a new season without their top rebounder from the year before.

Fans also can expect more production out of 6-3 sophomore forwards Jenn and LeeAnne Wirth. Both received double-digit minutes last year as true freshmen.

“Both are very skilled,” Fortier said. “Jenn is a little bit ahead in physicality and LeeAnne is more of a finesse player.”

Bench

Quality depth is as good as it’s been under Fortier, especially in the backcourt, which begs the question: Who’ll be first off the bench?

In the frontcourt, that figures to be LeeAnne Wirth subbing for her sister or Rice. Also in the mix are sophomore Gillian Barfield and true freshman Melody Kempton out of Post Falls.

“She looks like a three-years-ago version of Zykera, a bit undersized, but she doesn’t shy away from anyone,” Fortier said of the 6-1 Kempton.

Anamaria Virjoghe, a 6-5 transfer from Northwest Christian, must sit out this season.

In the backcourt, the key reserve might be Katie Campbell. Recruited a year ago from a California junior college for her long-range shooting, Campbell saw limited action last season, but she and sophomore guard Louise Forsythe “are shooting it really well right now,” Fortier said.

Overall three-point shooting was an issue last season. At one point, the Zags were among the worst long-range shooting teams in Division I, but they found the range late in the season and finished at 29.4 percent.

On the other hand, Barta and Emma Stach were GU’s top three-point shooters last season, and they will be hard to replace.

Accuracy probably will translate into more minutes, but Fortier wants to keep things positive through the inevitable slumps: “I’m not quick to tell a player, ‘You’re not shooting it great.’

“As long as we can keep their confidence up,” Fortier said.

Coaching

Has it really been almost five years since Fortier took over from Kelly Graves?

“I don’t know if that’s a long time or a little time,” Fortier said.

It certainly has been successful. In four seasons, Fortier and her staff are 98-35 overall and 57-15 in the WCC, with three regular-season titles and three NCAA Tournament appearances.

“I’m a firm believer that if you put in the work, you’ll get the results,” Fortier said.

Also back for their fifth seasons are assistants Craig Fortier, Jordan Green and Stacy Clinesmith.


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