The jet lag is just now wearing off, but the memories are still fresh from Gonzaga women’s basketball’s foreign tour through Europe.
After nearly two weeks traveling through Spain and Italy from Aug. 10-22, including four games against local teams, the Zags were ready to go home to begin school.
They stayed in Rome, Barcelona, Spain, Venice, Italy, and Florence, Italy, with day excursions to Lucca, Italy, and the Vatican City, all while consuming enough Italian and Spanish cuisine to last a long while.
“I did get a little bit tired of pizza and pasta,” head coach Lisa Fortier said.
This trip was years in the making, with origins dating back to before former head coach Kelly Graves left the program in 2014. Graves used to send Fortier, then one of his assistants, as a representative to argue for the trip with university officials.
“From our perspective, this was the year we wanted to do it,” Fortier said. “We wanted to give them an opportunity to experience it basketball-wise, but it was also important for us for just a life experience.”
It’s nearly impossible for basketball players to study abroad, as they often must practice year-round. This trip is the first of its kind for the program and one that is only allowed once every four years by the NCAA. It gave Fortier’s team a chance to get a taste of what nearly half of GU students experience when they study abroad.
While in Florence, the team toured GU’s study abroad campus and volunteered for multiple organizations affiliated with Gonzaga in Florence (GIF).
“It’s like a once in a lifetime thing to get that trip and have so much of it paid for, and just to have such a cool group of girls,” junior LeeAnne Wirth said. “I feel really lucky to have been here, especially on the first time that we went.”
But of course, it couldn’t be all fun and games. With one game each against local teams in Barcelona and Rome and two games in Florence, much of this trip was about improving the team as well.
The level of competition was dubious, as the Bulldogs drubbed every opponent in their path by double digits. Most of the teams were hastily assembled squads of local professional players who hadn’t practiced much together, if at all.
“I wish the competition was a little bit better,” Fortier said. “But I still thought we got what we wanted to get out of it, basketball-wise.”
Chief among the benefits of these games included giving a crucial five-player junior class more reps in real game action.
Juniors LeeAnne and Jenn Wirth, Louise Forsyth, Gillian Barfield and Jill Townsend all look to have key or expanded roles this season after the departures of seniors Laura Stockton, Chandler Smith and Zykera Rice last spring.
“Developing our junior class is important to us,” Fortier said. “That’s a big class that’s taking on a new role. We wanted to give them an opportunity to get some experience in that role, basketball-wise.”
A variety of new faces also joined the team on the tour, including freshman twins Kayleigh and Kaylynne Truong of Houston and Eliza Hollingsworth of Melbourne, Australia. Redshirt sophomore Anamaria Virjoghe and redshirt freshman Kylee Griffen were also saw their first action in a GU jersey.
With these new players in the fold, this was an excellent opportunity for the entire team to come together this early in the season and jell both on and off the court.
“It’s two weeks in a foreign country together,” Townsend said. “You have to work together and be around each other pretty much all day.”
Townsend is still working her way back from a leg injury she suffered in last season’s West Coast Conference tournament, but played limited minutes in the four exhibitions.
“Obviously, I wish I could play the whole time, but getting to go in, even a little bit like I did, was super rewarding,” she said. “Now, I’ve just got to wait until November.”
Extra practices were also an important way to build chemistry and get a head start on the season. Per NCAA rules, the Zags were allowed 10 additional practices preceding their tour, a significant increase from the four hours a week teams are typically afforded during the summer.
“The team practices are a great chance for us,” Fortier said. “We put in some things that we’re considering running offensively or defensively next year but that we’re not 100% sure about. So we got a chance to try those out in live play.”
Fortier said that in the future, the prospect of having a recurring foreign tour could strengthen her recruiting efforts. If the women’s basketball team can continue embarking on a foreign tour once every four years, almost every player who goes through the program will be part of it at least once. That experience could be a huge draw for future athletes, especially at a school known for its study abroad offerings.
All things considered, even the long flights and jet lag, Fortier considered this trip a success.
“I think it exceeded all expectations I had,” she said. “And I knew it was going to be great.”