Considering they lost three starters from last year, the Gonzaga women are walking and talking with a lot of confidence.
And they should.
At practice on Monday afternoon, the Zags spoke not only of departed starters Zykera Rice, Chandler Smith and Laura Stockton, but also of the loads of experienced talent returning for Lisa Fortier’s sixth season as head coach.
“I think we have a lot of potential,” said Fortier, who on only the second day of fall practice was speaking both in the near-term and beyond.
The Zags are not only coming off one of the best seasons in school history, they also have what appears to be an established starting five in senior guards Katie Campbell and Jessie Loera, and a trio of juniors in the frontcourt with Jill Townsend and the Wirth twins, Jenn and LeeAnn.
Each averaged at least 20 minutes last year, enough that Loera (who backed up Stockton at the point last year) and Wirth (who spelled her sister as well as Rice) might be considered returning starters.
Collectively they bring back 38 points and 19 boards per game, along with the savvy and talent that helped the Zags go 29-5 and win a third straight West Coast Conference regular-season title.
But if some fans have the starting lineup etched in permanent marker, Fortier was quick with the white-out, figuratively speaking.
“I don’t think it’s ever that simple,” said Fortier, who’s made the NCAA Tournament in four of her first five years.
“I think that’s how some people on the outside look at it, but they don’t see the daily practices, and they don’t know the back story and the work that’s been put in during the summer,” Fortier said.
There’s also the work that lies ahead – a full month until the exhibition game on Nov. 2 against Warner Pacific.
So far, no one has worked harder than Townsend, who suffered a brutal leg injury last March at the WCC Tournament. She’s almost 100%. In fact, Townsend said the 3-hour practice on Sunday was harder on her lungs than her ankle.
Last year, Townsend was the classic spark off the bench, starting nary a game but averaging nine points, almost five rebounds and shooting 44% from 3-point range.
Would she rather start? Silly question, Townsend replied.
“That’s definitely what we all go for,” Townsend said. “As a freshman we all are trying to get minutes, and as a sophomore you want to make a contribution.”
“When you’re a junior, you’re ready to see a larger role for the team – if that means starting, then, yeah,” Townsend said.
Another variable is Jenn Wirth, who likewise didn’t start a game but actually put up bigger minutes and numbers than her sister.
“You don’t always put your top best scorers in at the same time,” said Fortier, who cast more doubt on the question with an anecdote from last weekend’s team retreat.
“We drove back in the same car and were discussing some of those things,” Fortier said. “There was some dissension, some difference of opinion, but we still have 30 days to figure that out.”
Perhaps the biggest puzzle will be establishing roles for the players whose college game-day experience dates only from the Zags’ recent trip to Europe.
They include true freshmen guards Kayleigh and Kaylynne Truong, who certainly will see playing time this year – but how much?
True freshman Eliza Hollingsworth, redshirt freshman guard Kylee Griffen and 6-foot-5 post Anamaria Virjoghe also hope to see action this year.
Melody Kempton, a true sophomore from Post Falls, figures to be the first frontcourt player off the bench, while Louise Forsyth expects to spell Campbell.
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