In her first year as head coach, Lisa Fortier guided the Bulldogs to a 26-8 record and a berth in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. Despite losing its top two scorers, Gonzaga has high hopes heading into Friday’s season opener against Air Force.
SPOKANE — In her first year as Gonzaga’s women’s basketball coach last season, Lisa Fortier led the Bulldogs to their 11th straight West Coast Conference title, their seventh consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament and the fourth Sweet 16 appearance in program history.
Fortier’s 26-8 record — a winning percentage of 75.6 — is the best of any first-year head coach in Gonzaga women’s basketball history, and she topped it off by earning the Maggie Dixon Division I Rookie Coach of the Year Award from the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association.
After such a strong debut, what could Fortier possibly do for an encore?
Keys to the season
Find some scoring clout
Keani Albanez and Sunny Greinacher accounted for an average of 27.2 points per game combined last season. The Bulldogs are hoping for big things from Elle Tinkle and Georgia Stirton.
Don’t get crushed by expectation
Gonzaga knows it has the talent to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament, but many a team has drowned under the weight of great expectations.
Find stability in senior leadership
The Zags will look to Shelby Cheslek, Tinkle and Stirton to keep the team focused and working toward their goals.
Adopt an offensive mindset
Many of the Bulldogs’ key players are naturally defensive-oriented, and it’ll be important for them to be aggressive on the offensive end, too.
Continue to grow as coaches
Fortier was successful in her first season as a head coach, but even she admits that there are some games from last year in which she might have coached differently.
The answer is simple.
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“We have a great history and tradition here, and we want to keep winning,” said Fortier, whose Zags open their 2015-16 season against Air Force at home on Friday.
Despite losing their two best scorers, Sunny Greinacher (14.1 ppg) and Keani Albanez (13.1 ppg), to graduation, the Bulldogs return full of optimism after they came an overtime away from beating Tennessee to clinch what would have been the program’s second-ever Elite Eight bid last season.
Fortier’s ascension to replace current Oregon coach Kelly Graves as the leader of the Gonzaga women in April 2014 was one of the feel-good stories in women’s college basketball last season because programs don’t always promote from within.
But Fortier was the logical choice to succeed Graves. A career assistant, she started her coaching career in 2004 as the volunteer coordinator of GU women’s basketball operations. Since then, aside from one season as an assistant at Northern Colorado in 2006, she has spent her entire career climbing the ladder at Gonzaga, first coaching the guards, and then becoming the recruiting coordinator and coaching defense.
That’s why it was particularly gratifying for Fortier and her team when Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth named her head coach of the women’s basketball team after Graves left for Oregon.
“She’s really worked all the way up to the top,” said senior center Shelby Cheslek. “For a lot of teams, when your head coach leaves, you’re not going to stick together. But nobody thought about leaving. Everybody just went about their same workouts. It shows just how connected we are here.”
Cheslek said Fortier has always been someone she could confide in at Gonzaga, and when Fortier took the top job last year, she emphasized to the team that the new title didn’t change the open-door policy she’s always maintained.
“There were times when I was struggling with how I was feeling about playing time or things like that, I would go talk to Lisa,” Cheslek said. “When she became head coach, she said, ‘I want you guys to know that just because I’m head coach doesn’t mean you can’t come talk to me.’ ”
Three big games
Vs. Stanford (Nov. 16): Going up against Tara VanDerveer’s perennial championship contender will be a huge early test for the Zags.
Vs. UNC (Nov. 29): Gonzaga doesn’t leave Spokane for almost the entire first month of the season, and this neutral site game against No. 22 UNC in Uncasville, Conn., will be a good test.
Vs. BYU (Feb. 27): The Zags wrap up their regular season at home with this finale against BYU.
This season, expectations are high for the Bulldogs.
“Especially after last year and going to the Sweet 16 with a brand-new head coach, I think people are expecting us to at least get that far again, if not further,” Cheslek said. “I want to go as far as we can. … But it’s a long season.”
Gonzaga has some big pieces already in place. Fortier says Cheslek has improved her offensive game to go along with her defensive prowess and rebounding abilities, while guards Ellie Tinkel and Georgia Stirton will be expected to shoulder some of the scoring responsibilities. Stirton, in particular, has blossomed into a lethal three-point shooter and made strides with her ball-handling.
The biggest hole the Bulldogs have to fill is on the wing, where Albanez scored droves of points. Still, Fortier is confident that she has the personnel to fill every position the Zags need. It’s just a matter of seeing who rises to the occasion.
“I think you make yourself crazy if you judge a successful season solely by where you end up,” Fortier said. “It’s all about the process. We have a great history and tradition here, and we want to keep winning.”