‘It’s going to be emotional’: Gonzaga’s senior squad set to complete long winding journey in regular season finale

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If life is a journey, the seniors of Gonzaga’s women’s basketball team have come a long way.

It’s an adventure that counts in miles, hard work and plenty of wins on the basketball court, but also in floating rides on the Spokane River or just hanging out.

On Saturday – Senior Kennel Day – the trip will be punctuated with cheers and tears, a fitting end for Melody Kempton, Cierra Walker, Abby O’Connor, Anamaria Virjoghe and Kylee Griffen.

“It’s going to be emotional,” Kempton said.

The Class of 2022 is one of the most successful in program history, with three West Coast Conference regular season titles and a 102-18 overall record.

And those Zags aren’t done yet. Four of them are starters, and they’re still fighting for a title and a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

However, Senior Day is a milestone on this journey, the finish line of a long and circuitous journey for most players.

Three of them – Walker, O’Connor and Virjoghe – started their college careers at other schools, while Kempton, a star in Post Falls, saw his future lay just at the end of the freeway.

The fifth player, Griffen, was unable to play due to injury, but has been with the team every step of the way.

“It’s going to be pretty hard to leave this girl group,” Griffen said.

How they got here is perhaps the most interesting part of the story, a lesson in the rewards of believing in yourself.

Walker, an all-state guard in Oregon City, Oregon, signed with Vanderbilt before returning to the Northwest to be closer to his family and play for a winner.

Not only did she become a two-year starter and the Zags’ top outside shooter, but Walker helped the Zags have two stellar seasons.

O’Connor, who grew up in Indiana and started his college career at nearby Chicago’s Loyola, took a chance by heading to Spokane with only one guaranteed year on the court.

Granted an extra year by the COVID-19 exemption, O’Connor took advantage of it and started 27 games this year.

Virjoghe had barely heard of Spokane when she left her native Romania in the fall of 2017 to play at tiny Northwest Christian College in Eugene, Oregon.

By chance and coincidence, his first collegiate game was a kennel show. The Zags coaches liked what they saw, and a year later Virjoghe was a Zag.

Kempton arrived in Spokane the same summer after a storied career in Post Falls. A regular since his first year, Kempton has been fearless in the paint and one of the toughest players in recent GU history.

“I’m just doing the right thing,” Kempton said recently. “I hope people remember to be super consistent in life and in basketball.”

Looking back on his career, Kempton said his favorite moment on the court was last year’s WCC title match, when the Zags beat the stomach flu for a last-second victory over BYU in the game for the WCC title.

It was great, said Kempton, who won the WCC’s top sixth woman of the year award last year. “But it’s just the little things – hanging out with teammates and listening to music, and just being together.”

Kempton is sure to draw a crowd on Saturday, when she is joined by her parents, Darrell and Teresa, her two brothers, her grandparents and her fiancé. After her last game, she’s ready to “move on with her life” and put her degree in physiology to work in medical sales.

Walker said she expects to be “crying all day” ahead of Saturday’s ceremony and the game against LMU.

“But I’ll be happy to be with my teammates,” said Walker, whose favorite memory was a tube float with his teammates.

“When one of the tubes leaked, we just doubled over – that was pretty cool,” Walker said.

Walker said she would like to be remembered for “making shots and being there for my teammates.”

She has no intention of stopping now; after GU, Walker will try to play professionally overseas.

O’Connor didn’t know what to expect in Spokane after growing up in the Midwest.

“It’s definitely different here, but great fun,” said O’Connor, who hopes fans will remember her for training, playing hard and doing the little things that maybe don’t appear- not always be on the dashboard.

O’Connor’s parents are already there. Able to work remotely, they moved here last fall “and have been in almost every game,” said O’Connor, who said she wasn’t overly emotional but admits the emotion of Senior Day will “probably trump me”.

Like O’Connor, Virjoghe broke into the starting lineup this year and made the most of it. And with Romania so far away, she also tried to make the most of the friendships in Spokane.

His parents will not be able to be at the kennel, but will monitor from a distance.

“I’m sure I’ll be crying all day, and super emotional because I know my parents will want to be there,” Virjoghe said.

The day will also be bittersweet for Griffen, who emerged from Lake Stevens, Wash., as one of the Zags’ top rookies in the fall of 2018.

However, his college career was cut short by a shoulder injury and then cut short by neurovascular issues.

Although only in her third year in the program, Griffen has already graduated and plans to earn a master’s degree in clinical counseling.

“I definitely had a different experience than the other girls,” said Griffen, who tried to support her teammates in games, practices – “being there for people when they needed it,” said Griffin.

With friends like that, the journey is that much easier.

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