by HOWIE STALWICK & r & & r & GONZAGA & r & & r & The Bulldogs are favorites to repeat as regular-season champions of the West Coast Conference. Gonzaga returns four starters off a 25-9 team (13-1 WCC), including WCC Player of the Year Heather Bowman. The 6-foot-2 forward led the WCC with 20.1 points per game last season, but she will be sidelined at the start of the season due to elbow surgery. The Bulldogs, who open the season at home Friday at 6 pm versus Eastern Oregon, have already sold all 6,000 tickets for their Dec. 30 home game with defending NCAA champion Tennessee and former University High School star Angie Bjorklund.
The long-suffering Cougars lost just one little-used reserve from last year's squad, and their recruiting class was ranked 16th by Blue Star Basketball. Still, the Cougars are extremely young, and Pac-10 coaches picked WSU for ninth place. The Cougs finished last a year ago at 2-16 (5-25 overall). Leading scorer Katie Appleton (12 points per game) is back, and the impressive freshman crop includes Philadelphia high school senior player of the year Rosie Tarnowski and April Cook, a point guard off second-ranked national prep powerhouse Long Beach (Calif.) Poly. WSU opens Sunday at Texas Tech.
The Eagles wobbled their way through one of the worst seasons in school history last year (4-25, 1-15 Big Sky), and Big Sky coaches predict Eastern will remain in last place. Four starters return, including No. 2 scorer Kyle Evans, who averaged 11.3 points per game as a freshman out of Brewster High. The Eagles might not be too impressive on the court, but they're outstanding in the classroom. Eastern posted one of the top 10 team grade point averages (3.58) in NCAA Division I women's basketball for the seventh straight year. The Eagles make their season debut Friday at Nevada.
Jon Newlee, who guided Idaho State to the NCAA Tournament in 2007, takes over a Vandal program that suffered over the years as numerous players transferred after wilting under highly demanding former coach Mike Divilbiss. Newlee's job immediately became more difficult when former Western Athletic Conference scoring champion Katie Madison transferred to Washington State. Post player Yinka Olorunnife and point guard Charlotte Otero are the top returning players off a 4-25 squad (3-13 WAC). The Vandals, picked to finish last in the WAC coaches poll, kick things off Friday at Texas Tech.