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Gonzaga women’s basketball owes amped-up recruiting to blooming culture

UPDATED: Mon., July 13, 2020

Gonzaga head coach Lisa Fortier works with players, September 30, 2019, during practice at Gonzaga University.  (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Gonzaga head coach Lisa Fortier works with players, September 30, 2019, during practice at Gonzaga University. (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Connor Gilbert The Spokesman-Review

When all is said and done, there’s one thing Gonzaga women’s basketball coach Lisa Fortier will admit that she and her staff aren’t good at when it comes to selling the program to recruits.

“We’re not good at smoke and mirrors,” she said. “You kind of just get what you get. … Our staff is genuine, and I think that actually that’s not by design. It’s just how we are.”

But when a program has done what the Zags have done in Fortier’s six-year tenure, there’s not much need for fibbing.

Since taking over after Kelly Graves’ departure for Oregon in 2014, Fortier has led GU to a WCC regular season crown and tournament appearance in every year but one – to go with two top-15 finishes in the AP poll over the last two seasons. A byproduct of that success – and particularly the heightened notoriety of the last two years – has been a pattern of recruiting classes that continue to make strides on a yearly basis.

“Kelly did things in the tournament that no one did before with this program,” said Elle Tinkle, who played for both Graves and Fortier from 2012-2017. “But Lisa has also done things there that no one else has done.”

In the past, much of GU’s impact recruiting was fairly local – the Zags’ top five all-time scorers (Heather Bowman, Courtney Vandersloot, Tammy Tibbles, Jessica Malone and Ivy Safranski) all hail from Washington or Oregon. But as of late, it would appear that more recruits with national visibility are taking notice.

Fortier’s staff has had a particularly productive offseason so far, filling out their 2021 class with four oral commits, all highly-touted prospects in Esther Little, Payton Muma, Calli Stokes and Bree Salenbien.

Fortier said team fit is her foremost priority in terms of going after recruits, but it doesn’t hurt when the players that she sees as a fit with the program also have impressive individual accolades.

Little has logged more than 50 games on the international stage for her native England. Muma was all-state in Colorado following her junior season, and Stokes was named one of the top 50 players in Southern California by Scorebook Live despite being injured for much of the spring. Salenbien is rated as a five-star recruit by ESPN, and was recently named AP Player of the Year in Michigan for the third-consecutive year.

Perhaps what is even more impressive is the fact that the majority of the recruiting was done with limited contact.

Due to NCAA-imposed COVID-19 restrictions on recruiting, multiple prospects committed even though they were limited to only virtual campus visits. Fortier and her staff prepared videos and presentations for recruits to give them an experience as close as possible to the real thing.

“Even with everything going on, we have confidence that we can evaluate the right ones and that we can show off our campus and our program in a variety of different ways,” Fortier said.

Abby O’Connor, a junior transfer from Loyola (Chicago), signed with GU during the offseason period despite never physically visiting campus. The sweet-shooting guard averaged 12.5 points per game in three seasons in Chicago and will be eligible to play in 2021.

The Zags’ incoming 2020 freshman class features two international prospects with FIBA experience in Lily Scanlon (Australia) and Yvonne Ejim (Canada), along with four-star California prep standout McKayla Williams.

International talent is hardly a new thing for GU, with Louise Forsythe (Canada), Anamaria Virjoghe (Romania) and Eliza Hollingsworth (Australia) all on last year’s roster and plenty of crucial past players with overseas origins. Even in the uncertainty caused by the recent Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) decision regarding international students, Fortier feels confident in her staff’s ability to deal with whatever arises.

“I felt really comfortable to say, ‘Hey, this is the deal. Last semester we helped you figure it out. We got you home and we’re going to do the same thing,’ ” Fortier said. “If it goes haywire in the fall, I think they actually have confidence because we have a history and track record of doing just that.”

A “family program” is something that Fortier has stressed repeatedly in the past, and she said that that’s not just because her husband is an assistant on her staff and multiple coaches have children of their own. She credits it as a stabilizing force, and says it’s a critical part of her pitch, especially in a sea of unknowns about how college sports will look in the fall.

“With this kind of time of uncertainty, a program with continuity, success, and that culture is huge right now,” said Zags assistant coach Jordan Green. “Relationships are huge right now.

“People are worried like, ‘What’s going to happen? What’s the season going to look like? What’s my college experience going to be like?’ The families and kids want to go to a place where they know they’re going to be taken care of.”

In a period in college sports where players are transferring at an all-time high, GU’s women’s program has had hardly any early departures in Fortier’s tenure – fewer than any other program that finished in this year’s AP Top 25 over that span. In that same period, Fortier’s coaching staff hasn’t had any personnel changes, either.

“You actually see the proof – Gonzaga doesn’t have kids transferring out every single year,” Green said. “All the promises that we make, there’s proof that those things are happening.”

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