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John Blanchette: Return trip to Las Vegas reminds coach Lisa Fortier, Gonzaga to always carry on

LAS VEGAS – Australian accents tickled Hayden Mispley, an affinity shared by many.

So when he had the chance to be around the teams his sister coached, and if it was one of those years a player from Down Under was on the roster, he might inch a little closer to the conversation.

“He was a pretty shy guy, but he loved hearing the Aussies speak,” Lisa Fortier said. “He would have loved having Eliza (Hollingsworth) around this year, and Lily (Scanlon), who’s coming next year. Those moments – those are the fun things to remember and laugh about.”

Other memories bring melancholy.

Fortier and the Gonzaga Bulldogs begin their quest for a championship in the West Coast Conference women’s basketball tournament on Monday, trying to match it to the regular-season title they won with barely a glance over the shoulder. There’s an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament at stake, though the Zags will be in that bracket regardless.

Even with all that possibility ahead, who knows what emotions will envelop the Bulldogs when they walk through the doors of Orleans Arena?

A year ago, this was the place where they saw two teammates, Laura Stockton and Jill Townsend, swing out of the building on crutches after the semifinals, their seasons – in Stockton’s case, her college career – over. A loss to Brigham Young in the championship game the following afternoon was hardly inevitable, but it didn’t shock.

What did shock was seeing Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth enter GU’s huddle during a fourth-quarter timeout and Fortier ditch her heeled shoes and sprint barefoot out an exit, as her assistants – among them her husband Craig – took control of the team.

“Our emotions were focused on the game,” said one of the players, LeeAnne Wirth, “but we didn’t know what was going on.”

Fortier’s brother, who suffered from muscular dystrophy, had collapsed in the Orleans parking lot before the game. Their parents had made the decision to withhold the news from Fortier until game’s end, but a decline in Hayden’s condition changed the plan. Gonzaga personnel had a car waiting to take her to the hospital, where Hayden Mispley died the next morning, just 18 years old.

This is the memory the Zags can’t help but walk back into this week.

“Hayden loved our team,” said Fortier, “and he loved me and Craig. The season – it’s not dedicated to him, but he’s always in the back of my mind, and now we’re headed back there.

“I was there for media day (in October) and that was hard. There are hard days, and that’s going to be a tough trip for all of us, because we do care about each other. But it’s part of life.”

So is moving on. In this case, life didn’t give the Zags a choice.

Even with the loss to BYU, Gonzaga had an NCAA date ahead, as a No. 5 seed in the tournament paired against Little Rock in Corvallis, Oregon – still without their two highest-rev players, still processing two devastating days in Vegas. And with their coach the most devastated of all.

“Her leadership was unbelievable,” said Jenn Wirth, LeeAnne’s sister. “It’s sad that sometimes you have to be reminded in such sad ways of the simple things – telling people you love them, hugging them any chance you get. She handled it so well and was there for us. She didn’t want us to feel we couldn’t come to her with stuff, even if she was dealing with a tragedy.”

The Zags rallied to beat Little Rock handily. Matched against fourth-seeded Oregon State on its home court in the second round, Gonzaga was in a tie game with 150 seconds left before falling 76-70.

“I thought it was a remarkable coaching job on her part,” Craig Fortier said. “We had to reinvent ourselves with two important players out. And to be honest, for 37 minutes, if you watched the game you might have said we were the better team against Oregon State.

“She had a focus and ability to keep things in perspective, and at the same time add value to what we were all doing. It’s hard to keep basketball in its proper place, because it’s such a huge part of all our lives. She found a great balance for that, I think. And that helped the team.”

The carryover has been no less remarkable: a 28-2 season to this point, the losses in overtime at Stanford and at Saint Mary’s in the wake of yet another crushing injury, to senior Katie Campbell. Gonzaga’s first appearance in a national top 10 a week ago. A likely host’s role for the NCAA Tournament’s early rounds.

But first comes a return to this place where their hearts were both full and empty.

“After that Saint Mary’s game (last year) when those kids got hurt, there were some deep conversations – that we didn’t know were going to be so foreshadowing,” Lisa Fortier said. “We talked about how life sucks sometimes, and a little in relation to (Hayden’s) diseases. And then he passes away the next day.

“It’s just life. We’re experiencing it right alongside the players. And I told them again after Katie got hurt, you have choices: You either move on and remember things positively, or you quit because it’s too much. We’re not going to choose the quit route. Ever.”

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