TRACKING THE ZAGS: This regular web series appears here as long as Gonzaga continues its season.
By Ben Goodwin (GU ’16)
SPOKANE, Wash. — Anyone who has spent any time around Gonzaga knows there is something different. There’s an aura when you step on campus that you will not find any place else. You will seldom hear a new student or faculty member greeted with, “Welcome to campus.” It’s always, “Welcome to the Gonzaga Family.” Nothing on campus epitomizes the importance of family more than the women’s basketball program and it’s because of this that makes them stand out above the rest.
“Family is one of the main pillars that our program is built on,” Coach Kelly Graves said. “Family is who we are and one of the main things we believe in.” Many schools say they have this and it’s important to the success of their program, but nobody means it quite like the Zags. This family not only spans coaches and players, but also includes coaches’ children and spouses, close friends, and devoted fans.
Since coming to Gonzaga in 2000, Coach Graves has not only seen his program grow before his eyes, but also his three sons; and Gonzaga basketball has been a huge part of that growing up. Max, 18 and the eldest Graves son, really looks up to the players on the team. He loves any time he can spend with them on the bus before a game, at practice, or when they come over for dinner. Max explains, “My dad always talks like he has not just three sons, but also 15 daughters he is responsible for.”
But the Graves influence doesn’t stop there. Kelly’s wife, Mary, is an integral part of the system too. She loves anytime she can host the team for a night. Both Kelly and Max explained how Mary goes out of her way to make the players feel welcome and at home. Being away at school is never an easy transition, especially for athletes who don’t often get a chance to go home, but this is a way for giving them a female sounding board; a “mom away from home.” And as Max says, “It’s good for the team to know that not every Graves yells at them all the time.”
It also doesn’t hurt to have 15 young, energy-filled women around when you’re a working parent. For assistant coaches Jodie Kaczor Berry and Lisa Mispley Fortier, who are both mothers of children under three, team get togethers are playtime for their kids. “Our team always fights over who gets to hold the baby or play with the little ones,” says freshman guard Elle Tinkle. “We love it when our coaches bring their entire families along with us. It makes it so much more fun.” Not to mention it is good practice for these young women, who may one day have families of their own, to see the great balance between working and motherhood.
Gonzaga basketball has also touched the lives of many people in the community. Longtime fans Gary and Joyce Blazek sit right behind the Gonzaga bench, and have probably heard more than they needed to over the nine years Gonzaga has called the Kennel home. But they are diehard Zag fans. They’ve become part of the family. Joyce bakes cookies for the players, and often Gary and Joyce meet the team at 5 a.m. outside the Kennel to send the women off on a road trip. The trip always starts with a prayer circle and team chaplain Sister Laura Michels leads the prayer. Gary and Joyce are part of that circle, that Zag family. “From where we sit, it is easy to see the tremendous camaraderie these young women share,” said Gary Blazek. “No one ever gets snubbed or overlooked. They’re all in this together, and it shows, everyone cheering each other on. These are great positive kids, caring for each other, and that carries out onto the floor.”
From players to coaches, relatives and dedicated fans, this program is about a lot more than just basketball. You see it before every game, when just before tip Coach Graves gathers the team in a circle, shoulder to shoulder, and gives final words of encouragement. This is much more than just a team. This is a family.