There’s nothing like winning to inspire respect from your rivals.
Despite losing three starters from last season, the Gonzaga women are favored to win a fourth straight West Coast Conference basketball championship, the league announced Wednesday.
The Bulldogs are coming off one of the best seasons in school history, which included a 29-5 record, a program-best No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament and a first-round win over Little Rock.
Some might expect rebuilding this year after the graduation of Zykera Rice, Chandler Smith and Laura Stockton, but WCC coaches aren’t among them.
Seven out of 10 picked GU to repeat, while three went with BYU.
Along with a winning tradition, GU returns five players averaging double-digit minutes. Yet coach Lisa Fortier said she was surprised at the final vote.
“I thought that BYU might get more votes,” Fortier said. “The best part is that other coaches know that we graduate good players every year, but that we do a good job of coaching players to step up and fill those roles.”
The Zags got perhaps even more respect in the preseason player poll: Forward Jenn Wirth and guard Jill Townsend – neither of whom started last year – were selected to the 10-player All-WCC preseason team.
Despite missing the first seven games with a finger injury, Wirth averaged 8.3 points and 5.3 rebounds.
Fortier hopes Jenn Wirth will grow into a bigger role with the graduation of Rice.
“It will be interesting to see how she adjusts to the increased attention she’s going to get,” Fortier said.
Townsend is coming off a remarkable sophomore year. Despite not starting a game, she finished with a 9.0 scoring average to finish second behind Rice.
Townsend also averaged almost five rebounds and shot 44% from 3-point-range.
Her season ended with a severe leg injury suffered in the WCC Tournament semifinals against Saint Mary’s. Townsend said she’s close to 100% after six months of rehab.
“It’s feeling pretty good, and it’s great to be back with everyone on the court,” Townsend said at practice on Monday.
Gonzaga, which finished 16-2 in the WCC last year, got 78 votes overall. BYU was right behind with 75.
At least one rival coach wasn’t sold on the Zags.
Because coaches can’t vote for their own team, a first-place vote is worth nine points. That means GU received 63 points worth of first-place votes, one second-place vote (worth eight points) and one third-place vote (worth seven.)
Defending tournament champion BYU (26-7 overall last year, 15-3 WCC) finished second ahead of Pacific (19-10, 10-8), which earned its highest preseason ranking since joining the league in 2013. The Tigers collected 61 points for third place, edging out a Saint Mary’s (21-12, 12-6) team that is picked fourth with 59 points.
Just one point separated fifth through seventh as Santa Clara (14-17, 6-12) claimed fifth with 40 points and Los Angeles area rivals Loyola Marymount (18-15, 10-8) and Pepperdine (22-12, 12-6) tied for sixth with 39 points each.
San Diego, San Francisco and Portland round out the preseason poll with the Toreros (9-21, 2-16) collecting 27 points for eighth, the Dons (7-24, 2-16) collecting 18 points for ninth and the Pilots (13-17, 5-13) collecting 14 points for 10th.
Six programs placed at least one student-athlete on the preseason all-conference team, with BYU leading the way with Brenna Chase Drollinger, Sara Hamson and Paisley Johnson.
Gonzaga opens the season with a home exhibition game on Nov. 2 against Warner Pacific. Conference play begins Dec. 29, when the Zags host Portland.
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