Nov. 4, 2006
SPOKANE, Wash. - The Gonzaga University's women's basketball team will hit the floor for the first time this season Monday when Eastern Oregon University of La Grande, Ore., visits the McCarthey Athletic Center for an exhibition contest. Gametime is slated for 7 p.m.
Eastern Oregon went 24-8 a year ago under head coach Anji Weissenfluh who begins her sixth year on the Mountaineers bench. The Mountaineers were the Cascade Collegiate Conference Tournament Champions a season ago and advanced to the NAIA Division II National Tournament for the third-straight season. The Mountaineers return three starters, including senior guard Christie Weaver who averaged 12.0 ppg and 4.6 rpg and junior forward Sheena Henderson who averaged 11.0 ppg and 4.1 rpg. Both Weaver and Henderson earned All-Cascade Collegiate Conference honorable mention honors.
Other returnees are senior guard Liz Brice who averaged 5.7 ppg and 3.6 rpg and senior forward Candace Davis who averaged 3.1 ppg and 2.1 rpg.
After back-to-back regular-season West Coast Conference titles to their credit, the Gonzaga University women's basketball program will take on a new feel as it enters the 2006-07 season.
Gone are the key low-post players that carried the Bulldogs offense the last two seasons as GU has graduated three All-West Coast Conference low-post performers from the last two years.
While most the of the key components are gone, the roster is not completely depleted as head coach Kelly Graves returns the Bulldogs leading scorer in forward Stephanie Hawk. Hawk averaged 12.9 points and 7.1 rebounds per-game last season to rank in the Top 5 in the WCC in both categories, being named to the All-WCC first team.
"We have been successful the last few years with our ability to get to the free throw line," stated Graves on the Bulldogs two-year run as WCC champions. "Stephanie was a big part of that success last year helping us get to the line more than our opponents.
Gonzaga ranked second in the WCC in free throw attempts with 658, getting to the line 75 more times than their opponents. Hawk was a key factor in that success, attempting 158 free throws.
While Hawk is not the only returning low-post player she is by far the most experienced. Hawk was the only player to start all 30 games for Gonzaga last season. Senior Simone Santos and sophomore Maria Hassett also return to the fold with more minutes expected to be available for both.
Santos battled through various nagging injuries last season to appear in 25 games averaging just 9.6 minutes per game. She averaged 2.8 points and 1.4 rebounds per game, far below the expectations placed on her following an All-American career at Western Nebraska Community College.
"Simone was sidelined by injuries all last season and never was able to get comfortable on the floor," said Graves. "She is one of the most athletic players we have on our roster and she should be a dominant low-post player this season once she is fully healthy."
Hassett averaged 2.0 points per game, making 27 appearances last year with only 7.0 minutes of action per contest.
"Maria has the potential to be a great low-post player in the West Coast Conference," Graves added about the forward. "She was really caught in a numbers game last season playing behind three veteran low-post players in Hawk, Ashley Anderson and Anne Bailey. I think she will be a great asset this season."
On the perimeter Gonzaga returns four players who should help control the tempo of the Bulldogs offensive attack this season. Senior Katy Ridenour and sophomore Jami Bjorklund return with the ability to play the two or three guard position. Senior Rachel Kane and sophomore Sasha Polishchuk return to control the point.
"I think we have a lot of experienced ball handlers this season which should help us," Graves said. "Last season we had to play a lot of younger players at the guard positions and it caused us to make a lot of early-season turnovers. Those players matured as the season went along and we had less turnovers near the end of the year."
The Bulldogs committed 580 turnovers for the season, an average of 19.8 a game. In six of Gonzaga's final seven games the Bulldogs had 15 or fewer turnovers, ending the season with a 6-1 record in those contests.
Polishchuk handled a majority of the Bulldogs point guard duties last season, playing in 22 games with 9 starts. She missed several games with a stress fracture in her foot but ranked third on the team with 45 assists.
"Sasha continued to improve throughout the course of the season last year," Graves stated on the Bulldogs young point guard. "She never really played in a system like ours in high school, so she had to learn how to play under control. This season she is another year older and knows how we expect to run all of our offensive sets."
Part of the reason Polishchuk was thrown into the fray as a true freshman was the season-ending injury to Kane during the second exhibition game of the year. Kane was slated to be the Bulldogs point guard after serving as the back-up point her freshman and sophomore years. Kane will probably not be completely healthy until December, but once she is ready she will give Graves a dependable veteran off the bench.
"Rachel missed her opportunity to shine last season and I think our program suffered from her injury for a good portion of last season," Graves stated. "Rachel was the rock we were depending on. This season she will be a good player for us to work into the offense and she will be a good veteran leader."
At the other two guard spots, Ridenour and Bjorklund were the Bulldogs top 3-point threats with Ridenour draining 31 three's and Bjorklund shooting 46 percent from long range.
Ridenour started 29 of 30 games last season, missing one start due to illness. She averaged 6.7 points and 3.3 rebounds per-game while playing 29 minutes per contest, second most on the team. She also led the team with 49 assists.
"Katy is a solid player for us at the guard position. She has the ability to bring the ball up the court and start our offense from either side of the key," said Graves. "It is nice to have a flexible guard who is also a senior leader on the floor."
Bjorklund will also be spending time on the floor at the two and three guard positions. Last season she appeared in all 30 games with 7.5 points and 3.1 rebounds-per-game. She was named to the WCC All-Freshman team, the first Gonzaga player to earn that honor since 1993.
"Jami was one of the pieces of the puzzle that really made us click near the end of the year," Graves mentioned. "You could really tell her impact on the team when she went down in the WCC Tournament game and we couldn't find anyone on the bench to replace her spark. She has a solid chance of being an All-WCC performer this season."
With just a few pieces of last year's team returning, most of the focus for Graves and his staff will be on how to mold his seven new players into the mix. The Bulldogs bring in one of the top recruiting classes in the country with all seven players being heavily recruiting by several top schools. Two of the newcomers chose Gonzaga over Stanford University and the University of Notre Dame, giving Graves a chance to sell the benefits of Bulldogs basketball.
"This is probably the best class we have brought into Gonzaga from top to bottom in my seven years," Graves added. "Most of these young ladies were heavily recruited by other big-name schools and chose to come to Spokane and be part of our program. It just shows that we are doing things the right way and players want to be a part of that."
The two gems in this year's recruiting class are Canadian Janelle Bekkering and Spokane's own Heather Bowman. Bekkering is considered the best high school product out of Canada and chose Gonzaga over Stanford. Unfortunately, Bekkering will redshirt this season after tearing her ACL early this past summer. Bowman is rated in the Top 50 players in the country and decided to stay at home and help build the Bulldogs program.
Bekkering is a 6-0 swing player from W.R. Meyer High School in Taber, Alberta. She was the youngest player invited to try out for the Canadian National Team after two years on the Junior National Team. She averaged 28.8 points and 15.4 rebounds per-game last season and was named the 3A Player of the Year.
Bowman was just as successful in the Spokane area, guiding Lewis and Clark High School to the Washington 4A State Basketball championship in 2006. The 6-2 forward was a three-time first-team All-Greater Spokane League selection and was the 4A State Tournament MVP. She finished her prep career with 1,680 career points to rank first in GSL history.
"This year's recruiting class is the future of Gonzaga women's basketball," Graves said. "We have four freshmen in this year's class and all four have the ability to step right onto campus and start for us this season. I think you will be quite familiar with these young ladies names over the next four years. Janelle and Heather are both going to special players for us and will become the focus of our offense in years to come."
Also joining the Bulldogs this season are junior transfer Michelle Elliott, sophomore transfer Tiffanie Shives, and freshmen Vivian Frieson, Tatriana Lorenzo and Salena Dickerson. Four out of the five will be immediate contributors to the Bulldogs with each challenging for a starting role at their given position. Shives will sit out this season due to NCAA transfer rules.
Elliott is a 5-11 guard that attended Columbia Basin College last year after two seasons at San Diego State University. She was the Aztecs leading scorer both years, earning third team All-Mountain West honors as a freshman and honorable mention accolades as a sophomore. She averaged over 11 points a game during both seasons.
"Michelle is a veteran player who will help give us some stability in our back court," Graves said. "We recruited her out of Pasco (Wash.) High School a couple of years ago but she decided San Diego State was a better fit for her. Now she has the chance to help us continue and build this program as she returns to her home state."
Frieson is an athletic 6-0 forward who has played the last two seasons at Seattle's Garfield High School. She was a member of the 2005 Washington 4A State championship team and averaged 11 points and 9 rebounds-per-game as a senior. She started her high school career at Bremerton High where she was named a Street & Smith honorable mention All-American.
"Vivian gives us another athletic body in the low post," stated Graves. "She has the ability to score, rebound and block shots - things that will make her a very successful college player. She will definitely see minutes for us this year in the low post as we replace several players from last year."
Lorenzo is a 5-7 point guard from Honolulu, Hawaii, which the Bulldogs coaching staff compares to current GU guard Rachel Kane.
"We think Tatriana has the same potential to be a great college point guard that Rachel did when she joined our program three years ago," Graves said. "She will definitely get a shot at earning the starting point guard spot which should give us some added depth in our back court."
Lorenzo recently finished her high school season in Hawaii where they play basketball during the spring. She was named to the All-Tournament team at the Hawaii State Championships as her team finished fifth.
To challenge his new team and prepare them for another run at the West Coast Conference title, Graves has again put together a top non-conference schedule. The Bulldogs will play road games at Marquette University, Purdue University and the University of Washington. GU will also play at the University of Hawaii tournament where the field of possible opponents includes the University of Arkansas, University of North Carolina, Texas Tech University and UCLA. The Zags will also play host to Arizona State University and the University of Utah.
"We have upgraded our schedule across the board," added Graves on his 2007 schedule. "Last year I don't think we were ready to play Maryland, Michigan State and Tennessee on three straight days. This year I think we have a better strength of schedule and we have it spread out over the course of the season. Two years ago the NCAA Tournament selection committee challenged us to upgrade our schedule to get an at-large bid. This year I think our schedule is up to the task and if we play well in our league and knock one or two of those highly rated teams off, who knows what possibilities might exist for this team."
Gonzaga opens the season at home against the University of Utah on Nov. 10 and closes the regular season at home against the University of San Francisco on Feb. 24. The WCC Tournament will take place at the University of Portland and the Bulldogs should enter the season as one of the top teams in contention for the WCC title. Only once in WCC history has a team won three straight WCC titles. This season the new-look Bulldogs are looking to add their name to that very short list.