Fortner's Team Searching For Identity

Auburn, Ala.--Just like the men's team, the 2005-2006 Auburn women's basketball squad will be taller, more talented and much less experienced.

As is the case with the men's team in its second season with Jeff Lebo as coach, Nell Fortner will be relying heavily on a large group of newcomers to carry much of the load in her second season at AU. Fortner signed six newcomers and five members of the group are expected to be immediate contributors.

The exception is 5-9 freshman guard Chantelle Blakely from Nashville, Tenn. The former Antioch High star is out for at least three months after having surgery on both legs so there is a chance she will miss the entire season.

With the Tigers having to replace their three top scorers who were seniors last year, plus three other letterwinners, Fortner is not sure what type of team she will have other than being certain it is a young one.

When the Tigers begin preseason practice on Saturday, the coach will be learning, just like her players.

"I think one thing that is going to be important is that we try to start establishing what our identity is going to be," Fortner says.

"Are we going to be a hard working team? Are we going to be a strong offensive team and a not so strong defensive team? What's our identity?

"How are we coming to practice every day? What is our commitment to being the best team we can be this year? I think that is important that it is an everyday thing. If we can establish a real positive identity early, I think we will have a lot better opportunity for success."

The top returning Tiger is 6-5 senior center Marita Payne, who averaged 8.5 points and 8.0 rebounds while blocking a school record 141 shots, a total that led the nation last year. Payne has a school-record 270 blocked shots in three seasons.

Auburn is counting on Marita Payne to be a force in the middle.

The only other senior on the team is 5-8 Nitasha Brown, a point guard who averaged 3.9 points and 1.4 rebounds last season. She started 13 games as a junior and one as a sophomore.

Alexis Ogubie, a 6-2 sophomore forward and center, is back after averaging 4.8 points and 4.0 rebounds as a part-time starter. Her improved play is a key to this team's success.

The Tigers also return 6-1 sophomore forward Aileen Rossouw, who averaged 2.3 points and 1.9 rebounds.

Auburn's signee class produced four guards in addition to Blakely so there will be plenty of options for Fortner and her staff to consider at those two positions.

Whitney Boddie, who is a 5-9 freshman out of Florence High, was the state's Miss Basketball last season and a threat to win the starting point guard spot. She averaged a triple-double last season with 20.2 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists per game.

DeWanna Bonner, a nationally recruited 6-4 guard from Fairfield High, can play the point, but is expected to spend much of her time at two guard because of her scoring potential. She averaged 21 points per game last season.

Sherrell Hobbs, a 5-11 guard from J.O. Johnson in Huntsville, is an athletic player who should be an immediate contributor with her scoring ability and defensive skills. She averaged 22 points per game last season.

The Tigers are also looking for instant help from Joanna Clayden, a 6-0 guard from Lancashire, England, who comes to Auburn as a junior after playing two seasons of juco ball at Panola JC in Texas. She is being counted on as a three-point shooting threat and has international experience playing for England.

At center, six-foot-seven freshman Keke Carrier is expected to be a major addition to the front line after finishing up an impressive career at LaGrange High in Lake Charles, La. A two-time Louisiana Class 4A Player of the Year, she averaged 24 points and 10 rebounds per game as a senior.

More inside help is expected from 6-4 forward Juanitta Wallace, who is eligible to play this season after transferring from Tennessee State last year. A native of Detroit, she will be a sophomore. Wallace averaged 8.2 points and 4.2 rebounds as a senior two years ago at Pershing High.

"We do have some more athleticism, but it is young," Fortner says. "That is the tough part. How bold will they be is the question. Will they step up and not be afraid of being young? Will they want to take some of that scoring responsibility and embrace that challenge? These freshmen coming in here can score and we need them to score. The question is how quickly they will step up to the plate."

The Tigers will miss guard Natasha Brackett, who averaged 17.1 points per game, as well as Louise Emeagi, a forward who contributed 11.6 points and 6.5 rebounds. Nicole Louden, the starting point guard last year, was the team's leader in assists while scoring 10.6 points per outing.

Fortner says she hopes her young squad grows up in a hurry because the SEC is once again loaded with talented teams.

"There is just no relaxing in our conference," she says. "All I can think about is I know we have to get through our pre-conference season, but, my goodness, once we get to conference we have to play Georgia, Tennessee and LSU, and we open with LSU. That can be pretty daunting when you sit here and think about it. We have just got to get this team progressing and get their confidence there."

Fortner says she will be counting on seniors Payne and Brown to lead the way. "What they do and how they lead and carry themselves on the floor is very important," the coach says. "I think it is very important that they are tremendous leaders."

The Tigers will play outside competition for the first time with an exhibition game on Nov. 13th vs. Tuskegee University and they will open the season at home five days later vs. Texas Pan American.

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