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Gonzaga’s senior women show leadership comes in many different forms

March 23, 2019

Most freshman college basketball players just want to get into the game. Sophomores want to score. Juniors want to start.

And seniors simply want to win. Especially the seniors on the Gonzaga women’s basketball team.

Don’t read that the wrong way. Laura Stockton, Zykera Rice and Chandler Smith want all of those things. It’s just that the winning is what matters the most, regardless of their role.

This is a special senior class, for all sorts of reasons… not the least of which is that it’s Lisa Fortier’s first senior class that she signed and fully recruited as a head coach. She’s always been involved heavily in the team’s recruiting process, even for those players who were signed or committed before she was named Kelly Graves’ successor when he left for Oregon.

That meant this group not only committed to Gonzaga, but specifically to Fortier as the Zags’ coach. That means something when you’re a new head coach.

You can even hear it in her voice as she talks about them. Especially at this time of the year. And especially after all they’ve been through together.

It hasn’t always been easy, especially at a school that expects to hang a new West Coast Conference championship banner every year and go to the NCAA Tournament each March. As successful as the program has been, this is its greatest season.

Top regular-season record. Highest ranking ever. And the highest NCAA seed in the team’s history.

So, yeah, Smith, Rice and Stockton – which sounds like the name of a great law firm – came to this courtroom to win. Which brings up another point about this group.

Coaches always talk about the leadership of their seniors, especially once tournament time hits the calendar. If you look at the list of mandatory things coaches are seemingly required by some NCAA mandate to say, the leadership of that year’s senior class is at the top of the talking points.

Here’s a little secret: The talk about senior leadership isn’t always truthful. Sure, it sounds good. It’s definitely respectful. Even heartfelt. But that doesn’t mean it’s real. Even to coaches.

Privately, they’ll talk about the natural-born leader who is an underclassman, or the junior who leads the team in every imaginable way, not just in the box score. Seniors aren’t always team leaders.

Well, except for this year’s Zags.

This is not just a good sound bite from Fortier. She’s all in on these seniors. They lead during games, at practice, in the locker room. Heck, it’s not unusual to see one of the seniors lead the team onto its chartered plane.

What makes it even cooler is how each leads, with completely different styles and strengths.

Stockton is the fireball. The bulldog. Not afraid to get a little loud if she needs to – at either team. For her team, it comes from a place of love. For the other team, well, they’re the other team.

And it’s not just with her voice. If the moment needs her to nail a big shot, Stockton welcomes it. Just like some other former Gonzaga player from Spokane with a similar-sounding last name.

Rice is the “hype man.” She absolutely knows how to get her teammates pumped. If you couldn’t tell from her trademark hair, she’s not afraid to be a little flamboyant. Her west-side-of-Washington ways are a little different, and it totally works.

She’ll try to dunk in a game or even flex like Corey Kispert, if the mood hits her. If some gutsy play doesn’t get her team going, her contagious smile will. And she knows when to wield each.

Then there’s Smith, from Brewster. Exactly what you’d expect from a small-town girl living in a hoops-filled world. Steady. Unflappable. When things might be unraveling in a game, it’s Smith’s stability that can help the team self-correct with a single trip up the court.

Her rock-solid demeanor can even perplex her coaches. How do you know when it’s time for a player to catch her breath when she never looks tired?

Looking back, it’s an almost perfect recipe: How to make the Greatest Gonzaga Women’s Team of All Time.

And it almost didn’t happen.

Stockton grew up around Gonzaga basketball. Especially the men’s team. Something to do with her father.

There was always one place she knew she’d never go to college. One hint: Charles Barkley still can’t say the name of the place correctly, and Jimmy Kimmel thinks it’s part of some goofy Da Vinci Code conspiracy.

As she got older, she started going to some of the women’s games. Then she met Fortier.

They were the same types of players – fiery and never afraid to play against someone who was a whole lot bigger.

And gradually, the idea of those names on both the front and the back of jerseys started feeling a little more comfortable for her. Then one day, it just felt right for another Stockton to play basketball at Gonzaga – making her own mark along the way.

Smith literally went to another university.

Growing up on a ranch, she wanted to use her highly coveted jump shot to get a degree that could help out back home. Nebraska not only had a great women’s basketball program, it had the agribusiness program she wanted.

This was tough for Gonzaga, and specifically for one of the Zags’ assistant coaches who had worked so hard to try to get Smith to come to Spokane. That was Fortier.

And the irony was that just a few months after Smith picked the Cornhuskers, Fortier was named Gonzaga’s new head coach. Even without the ag-focused program, if Smith had known Fortier would be her coach, she would have stayed in Washington.

Then, sometimes fate intervenes.

A transfer from Lincoln, a year of sitting out due to NCAA rules, and by her junior year, she had already earned a bachelor’s in marketing and was pursuing a master’s in business administration. She’s now working on a second master’s.

Yet, for all of her success on and off the court, there’s another part of her college experience she cherishes the most. It’s the unexpected closeness of her team.

“This is like family,” she says as she lists all of the moments she’ll miss when it’s all over.

For Rice, the changes in her life are almost innumerable.

Growing up in Tacoma is a whole lot different than living in Spokane. One of the biggest differences is the diversity of this area. More to the point, the lack of it.

That forced Rice to learn different lessons than if she had she chosen a university in a metropolitan area. Even things as simple as talking to fans evolved from learning moments to teaching moments. When someone notes how well-spoken she is, Rice wonders if it’s because she’s an athlete or because she’s African American.

Then she looks to the stands and sees little girls in the Kennel of all skin colors wearing blue versions of her iconic hair. It’s then that Rice realizes she’s seeing something different: an acceptance that’s much deeper, even purer. They want to be like Z.

It’s made being on Gonzaga’s campus feel like home to her. And it’s taught her that leadership can be many different things, with many different roles.

Throughout the season, those roles have been clear to all three of these seniors. They embraced them and helped their team rise to unprecedented levels.

Things changed when Stockton’s playing career at Gonzaga essentially ended with an injury at the WCC tourney in Las Vegas earlier this month.

But maybe they didn’t change. Maybe it’s just that the roles are different now.

It’s been said that real leaders lead when times are tough, not when things are easy.

Things are tougher now for Gonzaga.

And Rice, Smith and Stockton are ready. They’re ready to lead.