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Second Weekend Aspirations

Gonzaga begins play on Monday

David Becker

When Lisa Fortier took over for Kelly Graves in the 2014-15 season, she took the Gonzaga Bulldogs to the Sweet 16. With some better execution down the stretch of regulation, they would have reached the Elite Eight for the second time in school history, but fell in overtime to Tennessee. They have not been back to the Sweet 16 since.

They missed the Tournament entirely the following season and a mass graduation of talented upperclassmen was complete. It was up to Fortier and her staff to build this program back up from her own image. As always, that starts with recruiting.

Her first true recruiting class included Laura Stockton, Chandler Smith, and Zykera Rice. With that group as sophomores in 2017, they went into Stanford at the start of the season and pulled off one of the biggest road wins in school history. They won the WCC tournament four months later and returned to the NCAAs as an 11 seed where they were bounced by Oklahoma. With a young nucleus, it felt like this was just the beginning.

The following year, a freshmen group of Jenn Wirth, LeeAnne Wirth, Jill Townsend, Louise Forsyth, and a transfer named Katie Campbell entered the program in one of the largest recruiting classes ever. They went 17-1 in WCC play, won the tournament in Las Vegas, and earned another trip to the Big Dance. As a 13 seed, they fought valiantly against Stanford, but fell in the first round again.

2019 was set up to be quite the season. Stockton, Rice, and Smith were talented, experienced seniors. They had depth at every position, with the Wirth twins, Townsend, Campbell, and Jessie Loera all earning rotation minutes. Another new freshman, Melody Kempton, immediately made an impact on the offensive glass. They started the season battling top-ranked Notre Dame, but fell short. They returned home and beat #8 Stanford in front of a sellout crowd. The senior Smith had 20 points. The youngster Townsend had 15 off the bench. They were off and running.

They entered the WCC Tournament with a 27-3 record, with their only two other losses coming at the hands of BYU. They were projected to be a top five seed in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history. Everything was going according to plan. Then disaster struck. In the WCC semi-finals, Stockton and Townsend both went down with gruesome leg injuries. Rice hit a buzzer beater to beat Saint Mary’s in an emotional finish, but they were exhausted in the title game and dropped it to BYU. During the game, Coach Fortier got word that her brother had passed away.

They entered the 2019 Tournament with a five seed, but were missing two of their best players and were dealing with immense loss as a program. But Fortier has built this program to battle. The shorthanded Zags beat Little Rock in the first round and fought to the final buzzer against fourth-seeded Oregon State on their home court.

The dynamic trio of Stockton, Rice, and Smith deserved a better fate to finish their senior season, but that first recruiting class of Fortier’s tenure left their mark and passed the torch to the next group. Last year, Townsend returned quicker than expected from a broken leg and won WCC Player of the Year honors in a truly remarkable turnaround. Even after losing in the WCC semi-finals at the buzzer, Gonzaga was set to be a four seed and host the NCAA Tournament at the McCarthey Athletic Center. They were 28-3 and reached as high as 11 in the AP Poll. All the stars were aligned to get back to the second weekend. The pandemic ripped it all away, ending the careers of Loera and Campbell with no closure.

Now, that second great recruiting class of the Wirth sisters and Townsend are seniors. They are joined by senior transfers Cierra Walker and Abby O’Conner who came to Gonzaga to experience the Tournament. They are all healthy. They won the WCC Title at the buzzer after battling food poisoning. They exorcised a number of demons in Las Vegas and they are ready to tackle the NCAA Tournament at full strength.

They open on Monday afternoon as the five seed against a Belmont team that shoots a ton of threes. With a win, they would face an Indiana team that hovered between 10-15 in the AP Poll most of the season. Two wins separate them from what this senior group has vied for their entire careers. This team and this program know how to battle and grind. They took top seed South Carolina to the wire in November. They have not lost a game by more than 10 points since that Notre Dame game in November of 2018. Their defense and depth keeps them in every single game they play. If the offense clicks, they are a top 15 team in the nation and can beat most teams on a given night.

Kelly Graves took this program from obscurity to relevance. Now, Fortier is on her way from taking it from relevant to powerhouse. They continue to connect on recruiting classes, they compete with the best teams in the country, and now the next step is to get back to the Sweet 16. After how the last two seasons ended, this team has all the motivation in the world to do just that.