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Jim Allen | The Spokesman-Review | September 22, 2017

Red-hot Gonzaga off to the best start in school history

  The Zags have earned points in eight of nine matches this season, including a Top 25 win over Memphis.

Chris Watkins isn't exactly overcome by the euphoria surrounding Gonzaga's biggest women's soccer moment in a decade.

He always sees room for improvement: better defense on set pieces, more commitment to winning those 50-50 balls.

"We always have to get better," Watkins said.

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But the Bulldogs and their rookie coach should feel pretty good after pulling off quite the trifecta last week: their first win over a ranked team since 2007, a national player of the week award for midfielder India Jencks and a 7-1-1 record that represents the best start in school history.

"It was pretty exciting," Watkins said of GU's 3-2 home win Sunday over 23rd-ranked Memphis. "The girls earned it."

The Bulldogs earned more than that. Less than halfway through the season, GU has equaled last year's total of 24 goals and is eight assists short of tying the single-season assists record of 29.

"We're really connecting on and off the field," said Callie Best, a midfielder from Nine Mile Falls and the only local on the team.

In soccer, it's all about making connections. They began years ago, as Watkins -- a longtime assistant at BYU -- made a point of staying in contact with Gonzaga and the Spokane soccer scene.

It paid off. A month after former coach Amy Edwards was let go last fall, GU turned to Watkins.

It's easy to see why. Watkins' high energy is always on display, and it couldn't be dampened during Wednesday's rain-soaked practice.

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Firmly but enthusiastically, Watkins took the Bulldogs through the minutiae of defending a corner kick. He even took questions from the players.

"He's totally inspired us to believe in ourselves," said Best, who's started every game and has three goals. "Everybody's confidence went from zero to 100."

That didn't happen overnight. Watkins used the spring season "to create a belief that we can win ... we weren't playing pretty soccer."

But GU was winning matches and Watkins was winning over the players, although he said that wasn't difficult.

"I want to say that it was really hard and that I'm really smart, but the girls were already tight and bonded," Watkins said.

Those connections carried through the summer and into the fall. On the field, Best compared the energy to "dynamic duos" who were finding each other with well-timed passes.

GU already has 21 assists, eight away from tying the single-season record. Sophomore wing Sophia Viviano leads the way with five. Madeline Gotta and Savanah Van Citters have four each.

The biggest recipient is Jencks, a redshirt sophomore who hadn't scored a competitive goal since her high school days in Seattle in 2014.

But Jencks scored twice in Friday's 5-1 win over Fairleigh Dickson and added two more against Memphis. That puts her at eight in the last five games and nine for the season, four goals shy of the school single-season record.

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"Finding someone who can put the ball in the back of the net is really remarkable," Watkins said. "She's an incredibly hard worker and very composed in front of the goal."

Others have noticed. On Tuesday, Jencks was named the Top Drawer Soccer national player of the week.

Once again, it was all about the connections, Jencks said.

"Most of my goals have been the easiest thing in the world. Everyone is setting me up really well," Jencks said. ... "Last weekend felt so good, because we worked really hard."

There's more hard work ahead. West Coast Conference play beckons next week, and GU is picked to finish last.

"Our resume doesn't stack up to our conference opponents -- it's not even close," Watkins said.

GU has reached the seven-win mark only 14 times in its 27-year history, with only six winning seasons. The best season so far was in 2005, when the Bulldogs went 12-4-4 and earned their only NCAA Tournament berth.

But as the rain fell Wednesday, the Bulldogs stayed dogged, building up that resume.

"We're still really hungry," Best said.

This article is written by Jim Allen from The Spokesman-Review and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to

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