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Zag fans across the country will most likely clearly remember watching Zach Gourde coolly and calmly dropped in 12 points and grab 9 rebounds against the University of Virginia in the first round of the NCAA tournament in 2001. He wasn't the leader of that particular team, but early on in that game he displayed his leadership skills in the same way he seems to appear to some people and the same way he leads the current Gonzaga basketball team – unassumingly.
When you watch Zach play, you just don't assume that he's got an ultra-dependable baby hook shot or that he's money within 8 feet. You don't even assume that he's all that athletic, but his footwork is some of the best in all of college basketball. You might not even assume he's going to be the leader of this team this year with Blake Stepp, Dickau's heir apparent, and Wooden award candidate Cory Violette getting most of the spotlight this summer. But all you have to do is watch one pick-up game and you'll have no doubt in your mind who is one of the leaders of this team.
Gourde plays his heart out every time he steps on the court as if he's playing for the championship of the world (speaking of which, I would've much rather had Gourde on the national team than half the NBA slackers who embarrassed the U.S. this year). His physical play down low makes you wonder if he's even friends with half of the guys on the team since they are going at it so hard. But don't worry, the team gets along great, they just have their own strategy when they play with each other. "We always beat the heck out of each other," said Gourde about their physical style of play. "When we get to the games in the season, its definitely a lot easier than going against ourselves in practice."
Physical play is only half of being a good leader, however. No one can just completely lead by example. Gourde admits that you need a balance of leading by example and vocal leadership. Zach has both. If you're doing something wrong, he's going to let you know about it and he's going to help show you the right way how to do it. But he's also constantly encouraging his teammates to play with intensity and to play as hard as they can. He's the floor general for the big men and he's not afraid to speak his mind.
While being a leader for this team has helped others on the team get better, it hasn't kept Zach from improving his own skills. His summer was spent mostly reflecting on last season and on the upcoming season on how he could better his own game. For the first part of the summer he was unable to work on his game because he had shoulder surgery. He said that the surgery went very well and that his shoulder is a lot more stable now than it has been in years past. It limited his time on the court, but it gave him a fresh perspective of things to work on.
"With all the big men on our team this year, we're going to have to spread the offense out and increase [the frontcourt's] range," Gourde pointed out. "We have a lot of big bodies but we want to have a more mobile floor and fill the spots when we run the court."
Anyone who has watched the scrimmages should have noticed that range is definitely one thing the big guys are working on. It's not that out of the ordinary to find Fox, Gourde, Violette, or Turiaf taking shots from beyond the arc. The more comfortable they get away from the basket, the harder it will be to defend them close to the basket as well. Needless to say, the success of the frontcourt will greatly help to determine the success of this year's team.
But success isn't only achieved by physical skills. As all Zag fans know, Gonzaga hasn't always had the most talented of basketball teams, but its been leadership, team chemistry, and heart which have helped them to reach success. According to Zach, this year's team shouldn't be all that much different in those areas. "There is a lot of talent on this team this year and leadership is a very important aspect of how successful this team can be. This team looks real similar to years past," said Gourde about this year's version of the Bulldogs.
And of course we all know what teams in years past have accomplished with heart and dedication. It's almost scary to think about what a recent influx of amazing talent combined with leadership, team chemistry and dedication could accomplish at Gonzaga. Time will only tell, but luckily for the fans, there isn't much more time until we start seeing the results.