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Zags to Play Exhibition Game

Nov. 4, 2007

SPOKANE, Wash. - The Gonzaga University's women's basketball team will hit the floor for the first time this season Monday when Corban College of Salem, Ore., visits the McCarthey Athletic Center for an exhibition contest. Game time is slated for 7 p.m.

Corban College went 27-7, including 15-3 in conference, in 2007. The Warriors were the Cascade Collegiate Conference Tournament champions a season ago and advanced to the NAIA Division II National Championships. Corban returns only one starter from last year's squad in senior guard/forward Jessica Steigleman. Steigleman averaged a team-best 14.3 points and 6.1 rebounds per game as a junior and was named to the All-Cascade Collegiate Conference first team.

Other returnees are senior center Mandy Peterson who averaged 2.1 points and 3.2 rebounds per game and sophomore guard Beth McLam who averaged 0.7 points and 0.6 rebounds per contest.

As the 2008 Zag season begins, the 2007 Gonzaga campaign is not one that will be forgotten any time soon. The Zags finally got the monkey off their backs and won their first-ever WCC Tournament Championship and earned an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament; their inaugural appearance. The Bulldogs also won their third-straight West Coast Conference regular-season title with an impressive 13-1 record. The season also saw Gonzaga earn its second WCC Player of the Year in the last three years and first WCC Newcomer of the Year honor since the 1991-92 campaign. Graduating senior Stephanie Hawk nabbed the Player of the Year honor while Heather Bowman was tapped as the Newcomer of the Year. Head coach Kelly Graves also earned his third Coach of the Year accolade.

"It was a tremendous season for our program and for Gonzaga University," said Graves. "We will always cherish the memories but it is time to look forward to the upcoming season. The knowledge we gained from last season can only continue to improve our program. We are looking forward to another great and wonderful season. I believe our program is at the point where we are recognized nationally."

Gone from the 2007 squad that finished 24-10 overall are Hawk, Katy Ridenour and Simone Santos. Hawk, who led the team in points (14.4 ppg), rebounds (8.0 rpg) and block shots (2.26 bpg) a season ago, left the program as the 12th leading scorer in GU history with 1,241 points. She also is the career leader in blocked shots with 167 and the fourth in career rebounds with 684. Ridenour graduated as the WCC leader and Gonzaga career leader in games played at 126. The tough-as-nails Ridenour never missed a game in her Bulldog career. Santos provided a spark off the bench for Gonzaga averaging 9.3 minutes and 2.7 points per game as a senior. That senior class went 48-8 in WCC play over their four years at GU, including 38-4 their last three.

"We lost three strong players," stated Graves. "But their determination, integrity, work ethic and love for the program have rubbed off on each and every returning player. They laid the groundwork for our program to continue to be successful."

Filling the shoes of these lost players will be a host of returning players including Bowman, Jami Bjorklund and Michelle Elliott.

Bowman had one of the most successful freshman campaigns in the Zags' history. Besides earning WCC Newcomer of the Year, she earned a place on the WCC All-Conference squad and All-Freshman team. The up-and-coming sophomore was also named the WCC Tournament Most Valuable Player after averaging 15.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and shooting 66.7 percent (18-27) from the field and 91.7 percent (11-12) from the free throw line during Gonzaga's three tournament games. The 6-2 forward closed out the season averaging 13.0 points and 6.1 rebounds per game.

"Heather was a huge part of why we were so successful last season," explained Graves. "She has an uncanny ability to score down low and also has a soft touch on her jumper. The loss of Stephanie isn't as enormous with Heather on our squad. She will be the key in the paint for us this year."

Bjorklund is almost a mirror image of Ridenour. The junior has played in every game since her freshman season, totaling 64-straight games, including 41 starting nods. She also is the Bulldogs hard-nose defender who earns the distinction of guarding the opposing team's best player. In 2007, Bjorklund defended Ivory Latta of the University of North Carolina, Katie Geralds of Purdue University, Chrissy Givens of Middle Tennessee State University and Noelle Quinn of UCLA - all WNBA draft picks. Along with her defense, Bjorklund is an offensive threat for Gonzaga. She finished her sophomore season scoring in double-figure points in 15 games, including three 20+ point performances and earned WCC All-Tournament honors.

"Jami is a player you just love having on your team," said Graves. "Her work ethic and drive in both practice and in games cannot be matched. She again will be our defensive stopper this year but we are also looking for her to be one of many offensive threats."

Elliott finished her first season as a Bulldog in 2007 after transferring to GU from Columbia Basin College after spending two seasons as the leading scorer on San Diego State University's squad. Elliott, a guard, gave some stability to the back court and was a spark both on the offensive and defensive ends. She was the third-leading scorer for GU averaging 9.5 points per game. She also dished out 68 assists and drained a team-leading 45 three-pointers.

Gonzaga returns five other letterwinners, including one starter and four returning redshirts in 2008. Joining the aforementioned players are guards Rachel Kane, Sasha Polishchuk, Tatriana Lorenzo, Tiffanie Shives and Amanda Brown; forwards Maria Hassett, Vivian Frieson, and Janelle Bekkering and center Elaina Renius.

Kane, who missed the 2006 campaign due to a torn ACL, recovered quicker than was projected and was at full strength on opening day. She became the go-to starting point guard after freshman Lorenzo went down with the same knee injury six games into the season. Kane was inserted into the starting lineup against Montana State University and then started 19 straight helping the Zags to a 17-2 record during that span. She finished the season dishing out team-leading 3.82 assists per game.

"It was great to have Rachel back at nearly full strength last season," said Graves. "She jumped back in right where she left off before her injury. She was able to control the tempo and flow of the game. We again are looking to her to be our floor leader in 2008."

Also vying for the starting point guard roll this season are both Polishchuk and Lorenzo. Polishchuk played in 31 games as a sophomore averaging 16.4 minutes and 3.5 points per game. Polishchuk missed a few games at the end of the regular-season with a high ankle sprain but was back to full strength during the WCC Tournament and the NCAA Tournament. Last summer, Polishchuk played with the Ukrainian Junior National Team when it participated in the U20 European Championships. Polishchuk played in all six games for Ukraine, averaging 7.2 points, 1.8 rebounds, and 1.3 assists over 94 minutes of action.

Lorenzo is on course to be 100% when the season begins in October. She played in the first six games for the Bulldogs, starting three, before enduring the season-ending knee injury.

"Having such depth at the point guard position is important," stated Graves. "Sasha and Tatri both bring something different to the court. Sasha has no fear. She is a hardnosed player who makes things happen. She is coming back this season having gained tremendous international experience and confidence. Tatriana, on the other hand, has amazing court vision, great quickness and a good shooters touch."

After sitting out last season per NCAA transfer rules, Michigan State transfer Shives is ready to don a Gonzaga uniform. Shives could see time as both the point and shooting guard positions. The 2005 High School McDonald All-American is one of the best shooters on the team and can handle the ball under pressure.

"Tiffanie should help make an immediate impact," said Graves. "She is eager to get back on the floor and play. She is a tremendous passer and a threat to score from any range."

Returning redshirt Bekkering, who recovered from a torn ACL suffered the summer prior to her freshman year, will team up with Bowman for a dominating tandem at the forward positions.

"We are ecstatic to have Janelle back at full strength," said Graves. "She is truly a player to watch. She will be able to match up with any of the small forwards we will play this season."

Also returning to the mix is junior Maria Hassett and sophomore Vivian Frieson. Hassett has made her mark the past two seasons for the Zags as a low-post power player. She played in all 34 games for GU in 2007, averaging 10 minutes, 2.7 points and 1.8 rebounds per game. Frieson is probably the most athletic player on the Bulldog squad. As a freshman she saw action in all 34 games, averaging 3.2 points and 2.6 rebounds per game. She dished out 21 assists, blocked 10 shots and made 18 steals.

"Maria has continued to improve over her two seasons with us," offered Graves. "After playing behind veteran Hawk this may be her season to shine. We need her to step up from a supporting role to a more significant role. Vivian has continued to develop her game. Her rebounding and blocking ability will be counted on this season. There is no question that Vivian has the ability to be a big-time player."

Returning to the Gonzaga fold this season is Renius, a two-sport athlete who also is a member of the Bulldog volleyball squad. Renius, who is 6-4, will bring some height to GU after losing 6-3 Hawk and 6-2 Santos.

Joining the veteran driven squad is freshman Courtney Vandersloot and Claire Raap.

Raap, a 5-11 forward from Prosser High School, is a two-time 3A All-Mid-Valley League first team honoree, averaging 14.7 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.8 steals and 3.0 assists per game as a junior. Raap also earned All-Region team honors and was voted Most Valuable Player by her team as a junior.

"The first thing people say when they see Claire compete is WOW," said Graves. "She is an incredible athlete, one with the rare combination of strength, jumping, running and coordination you just don't see very often. Claire is a hard worker with an amazing future as a collegiate athlete. She will continue to get better and better and the sky's the limit with her."

Vandersloot enters GU as probably the most decorated high school recruit in school history. She was rated the 63rd best prospect in the country by Scout.com and was the top point guard in the state of Washington, as well as one of the Top 15 point guards in the country. Vandersloot averaged 26.0 points, 7.0 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 5.0 steals per game as a senior at Kentwood High School. She led Kentwood to a 28-1 overall record her senior season and a third place finish at the Washington State 4A Tournament. Vandersloot was named the South Puget Sound League North Division Most Valuable Player and the Washington State Tournament MVP after finishing one point shy of the state record for points in a tournament with 113. She graduated as the all-time leading scorer at Kentwood with 1,684 points. Vandersloot also was a consensus All-State Player and the Seattle Times Player of the Year.

"Courtney has a high basketball I.Q. and loves to compete," said Graves. "She is a point guard who can score but also makes others around her better. An amazing three-point shooter, she has an uncanny ability to get into the game and create for herself and others."

Used to the tough non-conference schedule to help prepare the Bulldogs for West Coast Conference action, this season is no different. Well there may be one difference - the Zags will be hosting many of the tough non-conference games this season. Gonzaga begins its campaign with four straight home games that include two NCAA Tournament teams and two WNIT teams. The Bulldogs will host the University of Washington, the University of Nevada, University of Montana and Marquette University. The Zags will also host Purdue University and Eastern Washington University during the month of December.

A few highlights of the road non-conference schedule are the University of Tennessee, reigning national champions, and the Arizona State University Tournament that will feature ASU, Auburn University and UC Riverside. The Zags will also travel to Philadelphia for a game against Saint Joseph's.

"We continue to upgrade our schedule. We will play anyone," said Graves. "We played well against some tough competition last season, including North Carolina, Purdue, Marquette and Arizona State. We also defeated the University of Utah and No.19 UCLA. I believe we have a stronger and more experienced team this season that is ready to battle in and out of conference."

Gonzaga begins its West Coast Conference slate against Pepperdine University on Jan. 10 on ESPNU and closes out the regular-season at Saint Mary's College on March 1. The WCC Tournament will take place at the University of San Diego and the Bulldogs are looking to repeat as champions.