Stoking The Fire

Despite a decade of near-unparalleled dominance in the West Coast Conference, punctuated by six straight trips to the NCAA Tournament, the Gonzaga women’s basketball team has this unscratchable itch.

The kind you get when pundits feel that the program you’re part of has hit its ceiling. That you lack the ability to smash through. Don’t that make you feel you got something to prove.

On April 7, Kelly Graves, who’d lifted Gonzaga from conference bottom feeder to national contender in the space of 14 years, took the head coaching position at Oregon. It marked the end of an era. One week later, Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth announced that Lisa Fortier, an assistant on Graves’ GU staff for the past seven years (she was the Zags’ coordinator of basketball operations from ’04-06, then took a one-season stint as a Northern Colorado assistant before returning to Spokane) would become the next head coach.

Cometh the rumblings. Gonzaga had peaked, people said. Without Graves leading the way, there was no way it could push on and achieve glory greater than that Elite Eight run in 2011.

Talk about stoking the fire.

The new-look Gonzaga (wrinkles, not foundation-ripped-out type deal) returns a formidable core. The defensive intensity seen in recent years (Gonzaga’s 11.6 steals in 2013-14 ranked third in the country) will be back. So will a diverse, multifaceted attack. If you play at Gonzaga, it means you can score in any number of ways. And if you’re looking for injection of something new and exciting, consider Emma Stach a 5-9 freshman guard from Germany. Her first memory of basketball came at age 6—when she played for a boy’s team. The legend only became burnished from there.

Stach began playing professional basketball in Germany at 13; she has already played two seasons in the highest division, and once averaged 35 points in a season. In 2011, she featured for the U16 German team at the European Championships Division B. She was 14 at the time.

She won Best Point Guard at the tournament, and finished as the top scorer (18.0 points). Add her to a talented team with a chip on its shoulder.

Stand back and watch and enjoy. This season, #GoZags should be a frequent Twitterian refrain.

SLAM: You’re just back from a recruiting trip. How have things been going?

Lisa Fortier: I am. September has become busier than July, which was our big, busy month, but now we do all these home visits and evaluations in September. We’ve been all over the place, it seems like. I just got back into Spokane.

SLAM: It’s fascinating to listen to coaches who’ve come to Gonzaga describe their experience. Ray Giacoletti, a former assistant for the men’s team, and Jerry Krause, the men’s current director of basketball ops, couldn’t say enough about GU. It is a family atmosphere they’d never experienced before. What has it meant for you?

LF: Growing up and in college, I was always interested in coaching, and wrote papers on it. There were always a lot of males coaching females, and I never understood why. And people would say, ‘It’s hard, you become a mom, and you can’t do both.’ I have three kids. We have a 4-year-old, a 2-year-old and an 8-week-old. For me, I now know what they were talking about, about how hard it is. If I was not at a place like Gonzaga, I don’t know how we’d do it. We’re living the family environment. My husband is on my staff now, in his first year coaching with us.

With the support you have around here, you realize it’s OK to bring your kids. My daughter’s actually in the gym right now, in her stroller. (GU men’s head coach) Mark Few’s kids are always around. (GU men’s assistant) Tommy Lloyd’s kids are always around. Everybody’s kids are around the athletic department. Nobody scoffs at it, nobody has a problem with it. People just ask if they can help, what they can do to take care of them for you.

That’s something I think is important for the parent of a student-athlete you are recruiting. They want to know that their kids are going to be taken care of. That they’ll have a home away from home, especially when they come from far away. It’s evident when you come into the program—you’re likely to see a kid around. We all take care of each other, we all talk to each other; there isn’t a rift between this sport or that sport, or this gender or that gender.

It’s a small school (current enrollment is a shade under 5,000 undergrad), and half of us on the basketball staffs went to school here—at least for grad school. (Fortier earned her master’s degree in Sport and Athletic Administration in ’06.)

We’ve grown up within the program, and grown up together. It feels like we’ve matured as professionals together. Coach [Giacoletti] and Coach Krause are two of my all-time favorites. It’s a weird deal up here—we all like each other.

SLAM: You’ve said that Coach Krause taught you what it meant to be a Zag. What has it been like to work with him?

LF: I’m so thankful to have Coach Krause. He was the reason why we got here in the first place. (Craig Fortier worked two seasons as a grad assistant for the GU men’s team, from ’04-06). We worked for his book publisher in California, in Monterey. When we were looking for a grad position, he said ‘Come on up here’ to me and my husband—we were just dating at the time. From the first time we met him—and this is on an interview for grad assistant-ship, he treated us like we were so important. We were not. We didn’t play Division I, we were just kids who’d played junior college, and we weren’t even the best on our teams—well, Craig was, I wasn’t. There wasn’t anything special about us. There was no reason why he needed to give us a second look or pay any attention to us. We were going to come and work for free!

But he treated us like we were really important, and that’s how he treats everybody. I like to think I have a little bit of that, just because I’m a courteous and caring person. But Coach Krause showed me it’s important to treat people better…you know there’s the cliche, ‘Treat people the way you want to be treated,’ but this is to treat people better than they expect, and treat everybody like that.

He’s awesome. He’s helped us with our schedule this year. He’s all about learning, and continuing to learn. Making your own destiny. He always says, “Make it a great day.” That’s something I like, and I’ve taken from him—I always send ‘Have a great day’ in my email.

He’s such a positive person. He’s going to sit down with me every few weeks during this first year as a head coach, and he’s going to help me with anything I need. If I have any questions. He’s just someone who’s really in it to give back to people. And not just with basketball. He loves basketball, but he loves teaching and relationships too. I’m so thankful to have him around. He’s not going to be working for that much longer, he may be retiring soon, but it’s a blessing to have him in the office, to get his perspective.

He’s a good one. He’s a keeper. He has so much knowledge, so much to share. Anyone who doesn’t sit there and drink it all in, is nuts.

SLAM: For your past seven seasons at Gonzaga, you’ve coached defense. When did you develop that aspect of instruction?

LF: It was how I was as a player, so I think that’s why I was given those roles. It’s easy for me to see the defensive parts of the game. It’s pretty natural. I was a defensive player. I love defense. As the head coach, I’m obviously going to have to look a lot more big picture—not to say that I wasn’t involved with the offense before. I spent tons of time with point guards, and they’re the ones the run the offense. I’ve always had offensive input, but defense is something I’ve more naturally fallen into. That’s kind of my passion. Head coaches can’t focus on only one part—at least not for the first few years. We’ll fall into our own areas as we get going. But I love defense.

SLAM: About the guards you coached. The talent that’s come through this program is considerable. (Fortier has served as the recruiting coordinator.) Courtney Vandersloot, Taelor Karr, Haiden Palmer, Jazmine Redmon. Guards often keyed the defensive pressure you’ve become known for in recent years. Do you have to work with them to accept that?

LF: I think you have to get them to buy in. For different players, it’s different reasons. You have to play on their strengths, and their desires, and what their intentions are. Courtney wanted to be the best player she could be, but she didn’t necessarily want to be a great defender. She wanted to be a great assists person—that was her first priority. Haiden Palmer and Jazmine Redmon, their priority was more defense. Jazzy liked to stop people, Haiden liked to take the ball from people. We were able to help Courtney become a really good defender because we convinced her that she needed to do that to get to the next level, that it would help lead to our offense. Jazzy and Haiden, they took pride in just locking a player down. They wanted to score, too, but they were more interested in the defensive side.

We work on it, sure, but more important than any specific strategy is figuring out which strategy is going to work for each individual player, and tailoring it for her. To convince her to play for both sides of the ball. We don’t have a lot of use for someone who can only do one thing.

SLAM: On May 28, you spoke to 4,080 Gonzaga women’s basketball season-ticket holders. What was that like? What were they interested in learning?

LF: It was a little intimidating. Our fans are invested in our program, and I’ve talked to them a couple times. Just a few weeks ago, we had another opportunity to talk with some of our fans, and it was so much easier. You realize that they have some history with me, and they know me, but most of all, they love Gonzaga, and they love our players. They’re not trying to nay-say, they’re not trying to figure out the weaknesses, they’re just excited for the new thing, the next, the team. They make you feel right at home. They make you feel comfortable. We have great support here.

It’s intimidating to talk in front of a bunch of people, but when you realize who your crowd is, and what the demographic is, that there’s not a lot of people out there who aren’t pulling for you, that most of them don’t wish you anything less than success. They’re all willing to do whatever they can do to help us be successful. It’s a pretty nice situation, because if they were not as nice, if it were a different demographic, or people were not invested in our program, then it would be more intimidating. But when you realize what they’re about, it becomes pretty easy.

SLAM: Considerable talent returns for this season, including a strong core of upperclassmen. What has the team’s focus been like this summer?

LF: I think they’re really dialed in and focused. We’ve had hard, hard-working teams ever since I’ve been here—this one has been the hardest-working in the offseason. We’ve really embraced our new coaching staff, the new style, the new drills and the new things they’re learning from our new coaches. They’ve really stuck together, with each other and with me.They trust me. We have some history. I’ve recruited all of them, coached them all. They’ve really bought in. There are some people out there—not even some of our fans, but a little sense of…with the way all the change happened this past spring, a sense that some people think we are lacking something, or that you can’t do ‘something’ at Gonzaga, that we don’t have the demographic or makeup.

I think the players are all driven to prove that we are every bit as good as everyone else out there—and better. We’re going to succeed. They’re awesome to be around. I’ve never enjoyed coaching a group more than this. I don’t think that has to do with the fact that I’m the head coach now; it has to do with the fact that they’re so united and driven.

SLAM: You alluded to new wrinkles you’ll add as the head coach. What are some of the things you’ve implemented into this program?

LF: We’ve been a little bit more strict. This probably always happens with a newer coach. In the past, we’ve gotten a little bit…I don’t know what the right word is…a little lax. We’ve been a little bit casual with some things. We’ve tightened up the ship with disciplinary and on-time things. We have a pretty intense coaching staff, which is a good thing. I’m one of the intense ones. They’ve really started working on fundamentals. They want to get back to tightening up our game, making sure that we’re improving, and not letting any of the little things go. We’re coaching all the details right now. As far as style goes, we’re doing a lot of similar things. We needed to expand all of our games.

Last year, it got to the point where a lot of our players weren’t as multi-dimensional as we’d like them to be. We’ve really tried to diversify some of their skill sets, to encourage some of our bigger kids to shoot it outside a little bit more, encourage our wings to handle the ball a little bit better than they did in the past. We’re trying to diversify their games in this offseason, so that we have some more of the versatility that we can capitalize on.

SLAM: Speaking of versatile perimeter players, Lindsay Sherbert is entering her senior season. She has a conference Player of the Year-type of skill set, but needs to tether it to consistency. Have you worked with her on that?

Yeah, we have. Sherbert had a tough year last year. (10.8 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 43% FG, 35% 3FG). She was inconsistent. But she is versatile, in the fact that she can play inside and outside. We’ve worked a lot with her. We didn’t have any point guards on campus until September. So all of our wings spent a lot of time handling the ball during the summer. Since we were sure all of our returning wings would be back, we spent a lot of time with Lindsay, working on her ballhandling and getting shots up full speed.

She’s a great shooter at her own comfortable pace, but we’re trying to get her out of her comfort zone, going faster than she’s used to going so that when she gets into a game, and has to go faster, it’s natural and she’s more comfortable. We’re really trying to focus on her skills.

As a transfer…I’m the fourth head coach she’s had in her college career. (At Cal, Sherbert was coached by Joanne Boyle and Lindsay Gottlieb for one season each before transferring to GU, where last season she was coached by Kelly Graves.)

She’s had a lot of different styles thrown at her, a lot of different styles that she’s had to adjust to. It’s nice that we’re going into our third year together. (Sherbert redshirted in ’12-13.) I’ll have coached her for three years. I’ve been the one around the longest, and so now, we’re trying to be consistent; understanding what we want to do in general.

There will be some changes, but I think she’s really going to have a great year for us. She’s getting real comfortable with the system, and her leadership has stepped up. When she’s helping others, that makes her think less, and just go out and play more. I think that’s really good for a player like her.

SLAM: Looking at the other seniors on this roster, Sunny Greinacher and Keani Albanez stand out. Sherbert has assumed the mantle of a leader. Have they done likewise?

LF: Sunny’s been gone for a lot of the summer, playing with the German national team, so we haven’t had her around a ton. She’s more of a lead-by-example kind. Pretty quiet and steady, a little bit like Heather Bowman (’06-10) used to be. Keani and Sherbs have really stepped up with trying to take on a more vocal role. I don’t think that they’re natural and comfortable leaders—without any training, but they know that we need it, and they’re really trying to leave a positive impact on the program. We’ve talked a lot to them about leaving it in a better place than it was when they got here.

[Sherbert and Albanez] have different approaches, but both have been very effective to our players. They were unanimously voted in as captains. They’re doing a really good job of leading both on and off the court with the freshmen, and our new kids. Getting everybody organized and on the same page. Keani’s been here four years, Sherbs for three. It’s fun to see where they were as freshmen to where they are now, as seniors.

SLAM: Emma Wolfram came in with fanfare last season. She’s a really talented post. How did she improve during her redshirt season, and how can she impact the post in ’14-15?

LF: Emma is going to be terrific for us. She’s like every other post player we do well with. She can score inside, and she can really shoot it from the outside. She’s going to draw people out away from the basket, and she’s extremely skilled inside. We’re going to rely on her a lot for her scoring. She plays tough and physical—that’s part of her international experience (with Canada.) I’ve seen her guard 35-year-old women from all over the world. She’s not afraid to be physical. Every time I remember she’s just a freshman, I get really excited. You realize that after her redshirt year, she’s only a freshman. Emma is only going to get better. She’s got a high ceiling and she wants to get better.

SLAM: Emma Stach (pronounced Stasch) jumps out as a freshman who can contribute immediately for this team. Her scoring record in Germany’s professional divisions is remarkable. How do you see her transitioning to the collegiate game?

LF: Emma is going to translate pretty quickly. She didn’t get here until September 1, but she came in the best shape I’ve ever seen a player come in with. She worked all summer on her conditioning and her shooting. She can really, really shoot the ball well. She’s got a great handle, and she’s going to make an impact right away. We can use her. She’ll play point and on the wing, but she’ll spend time at the point guard position, for sure. She’s eager to do so. Having played against professionals, she’s got a lot of great experience. She’s not intimidated.

That’s nice for us in a year where we need freshmen to contribute. Some years, we don’t need freshmen to do much. But we’ll expect her to come in and get quality minutes, and she’s mentally and physically prepared to do so.

SLAM: You’re just back from a recruiting trip. You’re five months in to this head coaching position. Does “blur” even begin to describe the experience?

LF: It’s been fun, and it’s been busy. It’s been kind of hard. There’s been a lot of ups, also some downs. There’s been things I’ve dealt with before as an assistant, and when you’re an assistant, those things don’t seem to be as ‘good’ or as ‘bad.’ As a head coach, the highs are really high and exciting, and the lows are a little bit tougher than they used to be. And you realize, there’s a lot of ups and downs in every day. It’s not a day-to-day thing, or a week-to-week thing. Every day, there’s several things that go right, and a bunch of things that go wrong. You just have to look at the big picture and just keep moving on. But it’s been really fun. I’m enjoying myself already. I love the place that I work, the people I work with, the people who I get to coach. It’s a pretty great situation. I’m having a great time, and I’m so thankful for this opportunity.