The season is almost here, folks. So close we can almost taste it. After a month of player previews, conference previews, and a variety of best/worst case scenarios, it is time to dive into the five storylines to watch for each program.
Today, we look at the women’s team, who is coming off their most successful regular season in school history. They landed their highest AP ranking of all time (12) and grabbed their highest NCAA Tournament seed ever (5). What followed was an emotional roller coaster of a postseason. The Bulldogs prevailed in the WCC semi-finals on a double overtime buzzer beater by Zykera Rice to beat Saint Mary’s in what may have been the most exciting and emotional game in years. Laura Stockton and Jill Townsend both went down late in the game with brutal leg injuries. That would prove to be too much to overcome in the championship game where they lost to BYU. Head Coach Lisa Fortier also lost her brother after the game to complications of muscular dystrophy.
Despite all that, Gonzaga rebounded to beat Little Rock in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and were a possession or two away from beating Oregon State in Corvallis. With a healthy Stockton and/or Townsend, who knows what could have happened.
Coach Fortier has built her program on depth and interior play. Last season, eight players averaged over 20 minutes and a ninth averaged 12. This year shouldn’t be much different. Despite the losses of Stockton, Rice, and Chandler Smith, Gonzaga has the pieces to reload. They will probably not have the wildly successful regular season they had a year ago, but the talent is in place for another trip to the NCAA Tournament. Here are the five things to watch as the season gets going.
Laura Stockton was a leader in every sense of the word. She was the point guard on the court, the vocal leader, and the emotional leader. Zykera Rice was a vocal leader and Chandler Smith did all the little things to give the team energy. Now that all three are gone, who steps into the leadership role? During Gonzaga’s foreign trip in Italy, Fortier was looking to see who would thrust themselves into the spotlight. It feels like Jill Townsend is the natural option. Last year, she made a plethora of huge shots, including a dagger three to upset Stanford at home. She’s a tenacious rebounder and defender and raises the energy of the team. Senior guard Jessie Loera and Katie Campbell can also step into that role, but both are a bit more quiet and prefer to lead by example. With more road games than home games in the non-conference, leadership is going to be born pretty quickly.
Last year, the guards were extremely stable. Stockton, Campbell, and Loera would rotate throughout the game and each played well with one another. With Stockton gone, that leaves Loera to play heavy minutes at point. She’s always been an incredible distributor and handsy defender, but now may be required to score more. The back-up point guard spot is most likely going to be played by true freshman Kayleigh Truong. She has good size at 5’9, but will she be ready to play 10-12 minutes a game right away? If not, Loera may be looking at 30+ minutes a game and could be worn out by the time postseason hits.
Beyond the injuries, the reason Gonzaga could not get past Oregon State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament was the lack of a deep threat. Gonzaga hit 154 threes in 34 games, which is under five made triples a game. Katie Campbell had 63 of those. Nobody else had more than 27. They were 0-for-9 from deep until the final minute against the Beavers. Only one WCC team attempted fewer threes than the Zags. With all that said, their production beyond the arc should take a step forward this season. Campbell (63-140, 45% last season) is back. Townsend (23-52, 44%) is stepping into a bigger role offensively. Loera (27-81, 33%) won the three-point contest at FanFest and has been working all summer to improve that number. Louise Forsyth is former top 75 recruit who is a sharpshooter and will finally see consistent minutes in her junior season. Jenn and LeeAnne Wirth have tried expanding their range to beyond the arc. If Gonzaga can get that total to 200+ made threes, their interior play that they are known for will open up even more.
New Role Players
As already mentioned, Kayleigh Truong and Louise Forsyth will be placed into big roles off the bench this season. The third player that will make an impact is community college transfer AnaMaria Virjoghe. The 6’5 sophomore redshirted last season due to NCAA rules, but will make an immediate impact this year. The Romania native was the MVP of the U-18 World Championships and averaged 15.4 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks at Northwest Christian as part of a first team all-league season. Virjoghe can play alongside either Wirth twin when she’s in the game. She’s strong, has light enough feet to drive from the elbow and short corner, and has nice touch. Her most impactful contributions may come against BYU and 6’8 center Sara Hamson, who dominated inside against GU in their three games last season.
Can They Beat BYU
Gonzaga went 28-4 last season heading into the NCAA Tournament. One of the losses was to top-ranked Notre Dame. The other three losses were all to BYU. Their first loss in Provo, they blew a 10-point first half lead, shot 17-for-26 from the foul line and had three shots to tie or take the lead in the final 30 seconds and missed each one. Their loss at home, they gave up 12 threes and had three chances to win in the final 30 seconds again, but missed two shots and turned the ball over. BYU won on two free throws with a second remaining after a questionable dead ball foul on an inbounds pass. And then in Vegas, BYU killed Gonzaga with 13 more threes and outscored the Zags 23-7 in the second quarter to claim the tournament crown.
The Bulldogs were narrowly picked to finish ahead of the Cougars in the pre-season polls. The biggest reason? Cougar star Shaylee Gonzales is out for the season after ACL surgery. Gonzales averaged 17 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 4.1 assists last season as a freshman and was part of the three-headed monster along with Brenna Chase and Paisley Johnson that absolutely torched Gonzaga from deep in their final two matchups. Chase and Johnson are back, though, along with Hamson inside, and that’s enough to strike fear into any WCC team. Gonzaga has typically taken care of lesser opponents in conference play, but the hurdle this season is to end the losing streak to BYU and take back the WCC tournament crown.
Gonzaga’s exhibition game is next Saturday, November 2 against Warner Pacific. They open their regular season November 10 at home against Cal-State Bakersfield.