Zags hope to establish winning tradition under new coaching staff | Sports

In her last four years with the Gonzaga University volleyball team, outside hitter Kennedy Croft hasn’t had to deal with many changes.

The grad student played in the same system, under one coach, and every season had been losing.

However, with the hiring of head coach Katie Wilson, Croft and the rest of the team learn a whole new way to play volleyball.

An assistant coach at Notre Dame for seven years, Wilson’s methods involve using data-driven analysis in practice to measure each player’s production and effectiveness.

The heightened attention to detail holds players accountable, something Wilson has made a point of doing in practice.

“I think she’s the perfect balance of wild, but we know she cares about us,” Croft said. “We do a lot of stats in training, and your stats are your stats, there’s no fluff, that’s what it is. It was really nice to be pushed that way.

Wilson’s training style also increased the intensity level of the workouts, which Croft appreciated.

“We compete a lot in practice,” Croft said. “We’re always on the hunt for points, so it’s been so much fun in our gym this year, and in the spring it was super fun. We’re all looking to go head-to-head and battle it out, and it’s really fun.

Wilson is looking to bring with her the same level of success she enjoyed at Notre Dame where she helped transform a program that went from a 7-25 record in 2015 to back-to-back 22-win seasons in 2016 and 2017. Fighting Irish reached the NCAA Tournament three times during his tenure.

She comes to GU in a situation similar to when she joined Notre Dame — the Zags are coming off a season in which they posted a 9-20 overall record and haven’t had a winning season since 2016.

She will work her magic with a roster that is largely the same as last season, with 13 returning players.

Croft is the headliner of the returning squad as she was named a West Coast Conference (WCC) honorable mention last season when she led GU with 261 kills and 34 service aces. His 99 career aces rank eighth in program history.

With 2022 being his final year of eligibility, Croft wants to leave his mark by making this season the start of positive change.

“I want this year to be the foundation for a change in the program,” Croft said. “I’m really happy to have this last year with the new coaches and just being part of the start of a change is going to be really cool.”

Croft returns alongside two other key offensive weapons in junior setter Keau Kamake’eaina and senior outside hitter McKenna Marshall. Last season, Kamake’eaina totaled a team-best 615 assists, while Marshall racked up the second-most wins with 251.

The Zags are also bringing back two notable defensive contributors in senior defensive specialist Viktoriya Ivanova and junior opposing/central blocker Juliette Russell. Ivanova led the Zags with 265 digs and Russell was second in blocks with 61.

Russell believes GU will benefit from the return experience, especially since most of this year’s squad were able to participate in the spring scrums where they were first coached by Wilson.

“Our experience is a strength and we’ve had this spring season together and learned a whole new system,” Russell said. “We’ve had this spring season to really buckle down and figure it all out and find the rhythm of things and just find the rhythm of everything.”

But while the Zags are thrilled with the returning players, they seem equally eager to see what the new arrivals bring to the team.

Transfer graduate Kelsie White is one of five new Zags. She transferred from Montana State to pursue a Masters in Organizational Leadership at GU.

A 6-foot-4 center tackle, White finished her career at Montana State with 485 kills and 398 blocks, ranking seventh in program history with 327 assists.

“She’s just a great point guard and she’s also really good at volleyball,” Croft said. “But she’s just such a good person and such a good competitor. Her blocking is crazy and I can see her doing some cool things this year.

First-year setter Hanah Stoddard is another newcomer who has impressed in practice.

“We only had one setter last year in Keau and then we have a new setter, Hannah, and she’s a rookie and she does a great job because setters are like the quarterback in the team, so her taking on that role as a rookie is pretty big,” Russell said.

The Zags begin their season this weekend at the Oklahoma Invitational, a three-game tournament that pits GU against Iowa and Oklahoma on Friday before playing the Florida International on Saturday.

“I can’t wait to play in Iowa because it’s our first game,” Croft said. “I’m really excited to see if we can see the work we’ve done in the spring and this pre-season and see that come through.”

GU then heads home to host its own tournament where the Zags will face Idaho State on September 1, Nevada on September 2 and Cal State Northridge on September 3. All three games take place at the Charlotte Y. Martin Center.