Fortner, whose Tigers begin their first team practice with a "Midnight Mayhem" session that starts with preliminaries at 10 p.m. on Friday and practice at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday, is just the second head coach for Auburn women's hoops in the NCAA Era. On offense, her Tigers will look to run more and be more explosive as a scoring team. On defense, Ciampi's trademark matchup zone is being replaced by an aggressive man to man style of play.
We've done a lot of teaching," said Fortner, who has been allowed to do individual workouts with up to four players on the court at the same time prior to the start of team practices that begin with the Midnight Mayhem. "It's interesting because there is so much more detail when you're teaching your man-to-man defense," she said. There's a lot of detail in the footwork and in the angles and things like that. And there is a lot of detail with the zones.
"There are different ways they can play their matchup zones so it has been different. I think that the biggest difference for these players has been the amount of effort it takes to play man-to-man defense. You know it's not just your quickness and positioning, but it's your heart. How committed are you with your toughness, your mental toughness, your heart and your passion for playing that kind of defense. Also, your conditioning becomes very important so it's been an adjustment, but the players are excited about playing this style of ball."
Last season the Tigers posted a 22-9 mark and they were 9-5 in the always tough SEC, which Fortner acknowledges is the toughest conference in the country. She contends if a team is good enough to finish in the top half of the SEC in women's hoops, it is good enough to make a run at the championship in the annual NCAA Tournament.
Last year the Tigers advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament before losing to eventual champion UConn in what was a virtually home game situation for the Lady Huskies.
Unfortunately for Fortner, two of the key players who helped the Tigers win games last year have graduated. Forward Le'Coe Willingham was the team's leading scorer at 16.3 and the leading rebounder with 9.1 per contest. Center Mandisa Stevenson averaged 9.1 points per game and 8.0 rebounds.
Auburn's top returning scorer is Natasha Brackett, a 5-9 senior guard who averaged 12.7 points per game. The lefty also had 3.7 rebounds per game.
Point guard Nicole Louden, who is also expected to play two guard, averaged 7.4 points per game to go with 133 assists. "Nicole Louden has really grabbed my attention in her ability to play defense," Fortner said. "She has a style of body that keeps her stance down low. She has great lateral quickness and an ability to pressure the ball really, really well."
Fortner said the Louden looks like she will be a team leader, too. "Nicole Louden has been a really good, excellent team leader. It took a while for everybody to buy into what we are doing and what this program is going to be about. It is tough for seniors because they have been doing it one way for three years and now we are asking them to do it a totally different way in their last year. But this senior class has stepped up in a big way. Jersey (Louden) has been a very vocal leader and has done everything that we've asked her to do. I think she will really blossom when we get everyone on the floor and get after it as a whole team.
The other returning starter is 6-1 junior forward Louise Emeagi, who averaged 7.3 points and 3.9 rebounds per game.
The top returning big player is 6-5 junior center Marita Payne, who set a school record last season with 82 blocked shots. She averaged 6.0 points and 3.4 rebounds.
Tanesheia Thompson, a senior guard, averaged 5.5 points per game and 3.8 rebounds before going on the shelf after becoming academically ineligible for the second semester last year. She is the quickest player on the team.
Nitasha Brown, a 5-8 junior guard, averaged 4.2 points last year. Dayana Lorza, who missed the entire season with a knee injury, is back for her senior year and will add depth at forward. She is a six-footer with a good shooting touch.
Marita Payne will be counted on for more points and more rebounding this season.
Incoming signees include 5-10 guard Sparkle Davis from Paideia High in Atlanta, 6-2 forward/center Alexis Oguvie from J.O. Johnson in Huntsville, 6-2 center Aileen Rossouw from Plano, Tex., High and 6-4 forward Juanita Wallace.
"We are really looking forward to the start of basketball season," Fortner said. "It's time to get on the floor. Our players have worked really hard in the off-season with weights and conditioning all through the summer and all through the start of the academic school year.
"They're ready to get on the floor with all 14 players and all four coaches and start getting some real work done with what we're going to be about as a team," Fortner said. "We're excited about Friday night. We think it's going to be a great atmosphere. With our team and the men's team coming out to show you some things, we think it will help you to get to know me and (men's head coach) Jeff (Lebo) better and see what our teams look like. We definitely won't be in season form or peak shape, but it should be a fun environment to get the season started.
"I'm not quite sure what our team is capable of doing this year as far as the style of basketball play. I know what we want to play and what kind of a style I enjoy coaching, which is up tempo, pushing the ball, scoring a lot of points, pressing people and playing some good hard-nose man to man defense. And, hopefully, we'll be able to do that.
"We're pretty guard oriented. We should be able to push the tempo of the game, but the key lies in the recruiting and we've had some great players coming on campus and hopefully that pays off for us in early November with early signing. We are looking forward to the season starting."
Natasha Brackett, a senior guard, is Auburn's top returning scorer.
Auburn's first game will be an exhibition on Nov. 7th vs. Premier Players at the coliseum. There will be a second home exhibition game vs. Athletes in Action on Nov. 15th. The regular season opens Nov. 19th when Auburn plays Wisconsin-Green Bay in the Bank North Classic in Burlington, Vermont.
Auburn's home opener is Nov. 22 vs. UT-Chattanooga. SEC play starts Jan. 9th at Florida. The conference looks very strong again this season.
"I know that three of the top four teams in the poll are Tennessee, Georgia and LSU and that is about all I need to know," Fortner said. "This conference is the best women's conference in the country, and you know that. But those three teams are outstanding and you have Vanderbilt right behind them. Florida is going to be tough and Ole Miss is going to be good this year. It's just a tough conference, but having three of the top four teams in every preseason poll, that is pretty impressive."
How successfully the 2004-2005 Tigers can compete in SEC play depends on how quickly they can adjust to a new coaching staff and a new style of play.