The guard, who was All-WCC two seasons ago, was granted an extra year of eligibility because of a medical hardship — a phrase that could describe the Bulldogs’ 2015-16 season.
SPOKANE — Gonzaga senior Elle Tinkle was at work at the hospital when she found out the NCAA had granted her a medical hardship waiver for a fifth season of basketball.
Except, she didn’t know that until later.
Tinkle, who is attempting to become the first Gonzaga women’s basketball player to graduate with a nursing degree while competing, recalls turning on her phone during a break in her clinical shift at the hospital and being alarmed to find four missed calls from Gonzaga coach Lisa Fortier and a brief message: “Elle, call me.”
Keys to success
Find a starting five: The Zags return six women who played last season, two former starters who missed last year due to injury, two transfers who sat out last year due to NCAA rules and two freshmen. Now, they have to mine that mixture into a winning starting combo.
Replace Cheslek’s rebounding and blocking prowess: Shelby Cheslek graduated after last season as Gonzaga’s all-time blocks leader and second all-time leading rebounder. The Zags have some length on the roster but will probably have to make up for Cheslek’s rebounds by committee.
Up their scoring might: The Bulldogs finished last season seventh in scoring in the WCC, averaging 65.9 points per game. That should increase this year with the addition of transfers Makenlee Williams (whom coach Lisa Fortier calls a “lights-out shooter”) and Chandler Smith.
“I immediately assumed the worst, like, ‘Oh my god, I have a teammate in the hospital, and they want me to check on her,’ ” Tinkle said.
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Of course, all Fortier wanted was to deliver the good news: After missing most of what Tinkle thought would be her senior season with a torn meniscus, Tinkle, a first-team, All-West Coast Conference guard in 2014-15, was going to get one more year with her team.
It was an exciting day for Tinkle, the daughter of Oregon State men’s basketball coach Wayne Tinkle, whose parents and two siblings all played, or are playing, Division I basketball.
“I’m ready to go and ready to get back to work,” Tinkle said. “It was a huge relief.”
As the Zags get ready to open their third season under Fortier on Saturday, there’s an air of cautious optimism surrounding the program, which was picked to finish first in the WCC in the preseason poll.
“I feel like I’m a little gun shy now,” said Fortier, when asked about her expectations for the season. “Because I had such high hopes for last year’s season, and what I thought we looked like on paper. We had some all-time Zags and fifth-year kids. We were swinging hard.”
Then, a slew of unfortunate injuries hit, one after another. The Zags lost four starters to a multitude of ailments and two, Tinkle and forward Emma Wolfram, suffered injuries that ended their seasons.
The attrition derailed Gonzaga’s grand plans and forced Fortier to play several youngsters — guards Zhane Templeton, Emma Stach and Laura Stockton and forward Jill Barta all saw significant workloads as freshmen (in Stach’s case, as a sophomore) — but it wasn’t enough. A year removed from the Sweet Sixteen, Gonzaga’s 2015-16 campaign ended with a second-round defeat in the WNIT.
It was, Fortier admits while sitting in her office in the McCarthey Athletic Center last month, the most trying season of her career.
Three big games
Nov. 18 at Stanford: Going up against Tara VanDerveer’s perennially competitive squad will be a good early benchmark as to where the Zags stand nationally, and where they need to go. The Cardinal is ranked 11th in preseason top-25 polls.
Jan. 14 at Saint Mary’s: The Gaels finished last year as the WCC runners-up and return four starters including preseason All-WCC selection Stella Beck.
Feb. 2 vs. BYU: BYU finished a close second to Gonzaga in the WCC’s preseason poll — only one point behind the Zags and should be a tough challenge for the Bulldogs this year.
But, the ever-optimistic coach pipes, “Someone said — whoever someone is — ‘you learn a lot more from adversity than you do from success.’ ”
She pauses, contemplating the quote, “Probably because you have to take the time to figure out the problem,” Fortier muses. “We had a lot to learn, and hopefully we’ve learned.”
The “lost” year came with a silver lining. Fortier has a young but veteran squad. The Zags return six players who saw major action last season, and will have junior Wolfram — a former All-WCC Freshman selection — and the seasoned Tinkle back on the floor as well.
It’s a recipe for success — on paper. The trials of last season have taught Fortier to temper expectations and focus on the micro instead of the macro.
“I’m looking at the details right now and not worrying so much about the big picture,” Fortier said
Details such as how to work the Zags’ practice schedule around Tinkle’s crazy shifts this season.
Now in the homestretch of Gonzaga’s grueling nine-semester nursing program, Tinkle has to work at least two 8- to 12-hour clinical shifts at the hospital per week. She did that last year too, which required some creativity from the Zags to make practice work.
“It’s tough for coaches because it’s a scheduling nightmare,” Fortier said. “Last year, before her injury, it was very difficult because the last year of the (nursing) program is the most rigorous.”
To accommodate Tinkle’s nursing schedule last fall, the Zags took Tuesdays off and practiced late on some other days.
“She was pretty important to what we did. We didn’t want to not have her at practice,” said Fortier, who believes her players should get to major in anything they want as long as they prove they can handle the academic course load.
Tinkle said she’s wanted to be a nurse since first grade, and she committed to Gonzaga in part because of the school’s reputable nursing program, and the support the coaches demonstrated when she told them what she wanted to major in.
“There’s no way I would have gotten this far in the program and have the success and progress in my player development without their support and them believing in me,” Tinkle said. “I’m thankful for my teammates too because they knew, ‘We have to (practice) a little later this day because Elle is at work.’ Never did I feel any animosity or things like that.”
It hasn’t always been easy. Fortier recalls a particularly crazy three-day span last year before Tinkle’s injury where the senior guard worked two full clinical shifts, played two games and practiced once.
“There’s definitely days when I’ve thought, ‘Why did I choose to do this?’ I could have done anything else, with less stress,” Tinkle said. “But now that I’m doing the practical application of it and see my work pay out in my own patients whom I have a responsibility over, that reassures me that I chose the right degree and I’m on the right path even though it adds hectic-ness and busy days trying to balance it with basketball.”