As October commences, with its first regular season game over a month away, the theme surrounding Gonzaga women’s basketball was one of both reflection and forward-thinking.
A reflection on the past — an acknowledgement of the tangible and intangible gaps that the departures of Laura Stockton, Chandler Smith and Zykera Rice present — and, more recently, the value of a trip to Europe in mid-August.
Yet there is optimism in the uncertainty surrounding the Zags, which began official practice on Sunday. Optimism regarding the chemistry established during that 13-day escapade through Italy and Spain. Confidence in the leadership potential of an eight-woman upperclassmen group, including prominent returners in juniors LeeAnne Wirth, Jenn Wirth and Jill Townsend, and seniors Jessie Loera and Katie Campbell.
Hope for the five freshmen and sophomores — freshmen Eliza Hollingsworth, Kayleigh Truong, Kaylynne Truong, redshirt freshman Kylee Griffin and redshirt sophomore Anamaria Virjoghe — who are officially donning GU red and blue for the first time this fall. And general excitement for a half-year journey in its infancy.
“You’re always a little bit nervous this time of year and there’s so much we have to do to continue to improve, but it’s fun to be out here,” head coach Lisa Fortier said. “It’s the first time we’ll have had several practices in a row and we get to keep going … I think that we have a lot of potential for this team.”
The ensuing weeks and months will welcome talk of Xs and Os, rotational patterns and other on-court concerns. Monday’s conversations centered around some of the contributing personnel to those elements.
Townsend, who suffered a significant injury to her left ankle last March and underwent surgery shortly after, was a full participant in Sunday’s three-hour practice. It was the most basketball she’d played since before the injury. After being limited or barred from participation throughout the summer, Townsend said it was her lungs, not the left ankle, that suffered in her return to action.
“She’s a little bit rusty, which you always are, regardless of if you were healthy or not. We anticipate her to maybe be a little more hungry, which will be great,” Fortier said. “I don’t see any physical limitations and hopefully she’ll be able to pick up where she left off.”
The losses of Stockton, Smith and Rice leave the Bulldogs short two ball-handlers and a post presence in the starting lineup. But it’s the absence of their varying leadership styles — which manifested in distinct ways, Fortier said — that will help facilitate the continued maturation of players like Townsend, Loera and Campbell.
Campbell said she often leads by example but is also someone who wants joy to pervade through the Zags’ on-court responsibilities. As a leader, her goal is to build connections among teammates by balancing the enjoyment of the sport with the diligence of their craft. She said that not every team values chemistry to the degree GU does.
In addition to journeying across the globe together, the Zags took a retreat this past weekend — another stepping stone on the path to cohesion, a factor that seeps into the on-court product.
“We’re really good with where people want the ball, where their strong suits are. … And knowing each person’s different personalities, we can connect better,” Campbell said. “If we’re not as close, it’s gonna be harder to have those deeper talks and more serious talks, where they don’t take it personal and you think they’re mad at you or anything.”
For Townsend, navigating the leadership role bestowed upon her has been less clear cut. She said she’s still learning how to best imprint herself onto the team, but is aware of the newfound duties required.
“When you have a good leadership core, it’s because you have a variety of things from them,” Fortier said.
Growth is expected from Campbell and Townsend. Both in how they approach the mantle of leadership and how they assume a workload projected to spike.
After knocking down 45% of her 3-pointers last season, Campbell, over the summer, emphasized the ability to hit pull-up jumpers — something she said was more prevalent in her game during high school. She wants to holster a counter punch for when defenders run her off the arc and add variety to her scoring arsenal.
Campbell’s offseason, one abundant with opportunity for improvement, contrasts to Townsend’s, defined by rehab and time away from the sport. Comparing the Townsend of six months ago — one sidelined in a boot — to the fully healthy, cheerful athlete standing before media on Monday might obscure the peaks and valleys she endured to reach this point.
But they certainly existed and belief emerged as her vehicle on the road to recovery.
“I think that’s the biggest mental challenge that I’ve faced, trusting myself, trusting my rehab, trusting my surgery that it’s gonna hold and not trying to hold myself back,” Townsend said. “Sometimes, I find myself doing something or holding myself back or maybe my ankle lands in a certain way. It just scares me more than anything, it doesn’t really hurt. That’s been the biggest challenge and I’m still working on it. I think I’m gonna be working on it the entire season.”
Each day distances Townsend further from her season-ending injury — a new chance to regain confidence in the stability of her ankle — while also drawing nearer to GU’s first game.
It also introduces another opportunity for Fortier to impart her coaching principles upon this iteration of players. The goals, and possibilities, are evident: build upon the momentum of last season’s 29-5 record and second-round exit in the NCAA Tournament.
“If we take care of each other, give our best, continue to work every day and share the basketball,” Fortier said. “We can be just as good or better as we were last year.”