AUBURN, Ala. — Having walked away from a WNBA coaching job and a cushy ESPN gig, Auburn women’s basketball coach Nell Fortner hit the recruiting trail running nearly five years ago, determined to make the Tigers relevant on the national scene once again.
Her travels didn’t take her very far that first year, but they couldn’t have produced a much better group.
It is with an all-Alabama senior class — DeWanna Bonner, Whitney Boddie, Sherell Hobbs and Trevesha Jackson — that Auburn enters the SEC tournament today as the No. 1 seed, less than a week after having clinched its first outright regular season conference title in 20 years.
“Our vision when these seniors were freshmen was that they would win a championship,” Fortner said. “We really thought we could do that with this recruiting class. That was always our vision with them.
“A large part of coaching is being able to really get kids to believe in your vision. We have worked hard at that for four years and now we are seeing it pay off.”
By now, their roles are well-defined. Bonner, the sinewy star, already has secured SEC Player of the Year honors and is sure to be in contention for several national awards. The ruthless scorer’s 2,052 career points are 16 shy of Becky Jackson’s school record.
“A player like DeWanna Bonner doesn’t come along very often,” Fortner said.
But the other three seniors help the Tigers strike a perfect balance, one that got them to a 27-2 record, the fifth-most wins in school history.
Boddie, the firebrand point guard who leads the nation in assists, makes the offense go.
Hobbs does a bit of everything on the wing, ranking in the team’s top-three in points, rebounds, steals and 3-pointers.
And Jackson, the late bloomer of the group, does the dirty work in the post, reveling in contributions that don’t show up on the stat sheet.
“Every few years you get a cluster of them,” Fortner said of that year’s recruits. “We were just fortunate to have that kind of year coming out of Alabama high schools.”
Fortner sold the group on having a chance to return the Tigers to their past glory.
Auburn was once at the apex of the women’s basketball world, appearing in three straight national championship games from 1988-90 under coach Joe Ciampi.
But the Tigers haven’t made it past the NCAA tournament’s second round since 1996. Ciampi, the school’s winningest coach, retired in 2004 after 25 years, opening a door for Fortner.
Her first recruiting class came together one-by-one. Hobbs, a Huntsville native, was first. She was impressed by how Fortner stuck with her through a knee injury when other schools backed away.
Next up was Boddie, a lightning-quick point guard from Florence with a habit for chasing tornadoes. Boddie is a self-proclaimed troublemaker whose mischievous ways forced her father to keep her off of the AAU circuit during high school. It also kept her off the national radar.
“I was kind of like everyone’s backup plan, if they even recruited me,” Boddie said. “When Nell got the job, I felt like I was their top priority. They made me feel real special.”
Hobbs and Boddie immediately set their sights on helping Fortner lure the prize of the class: a razor thin McDonald’s All-American out of Fairfield who has perplexed first-time onlookers her entire career.
“She was the skinniest person I ever saw in my life,” said Hobbs, remembering a seventh-grade encounter with Bonner.
Bonner, who has hit the weight room to add 20 indistinguishable pounds to her lean frame in college, had offers from all the women’s basketball heavyweights, including Connecticut and Tennessee, but chose to stay close to home.
“I kind of wanted to establish a program,” Bonner said, “than go to one that was already top-notch.”
Fortner pursued two other players that year, nabbing 6-foot-7 Louisiana center KeKe Carrier, who redshirted last season and still has another year of eligibility. Jackson, an Auburn native, prepped for a year at Gulf Coast Community College before joining the Tigers in 2006.
The trio of Bonner, Boddie and Hobbs struggled that freshman year, going 4-10 in the SEC and watching their season end with a 77-45 thrashing by Tennessee.
“I think it helps us now because we know what it’s like to lose,” Hobbs said. “We know we don’t want to be in that position again, so every game we play we play like it’s our last.”
Slowly but surely the group progressed, making the WNIT its sophomore year.
Last year could have been the team’s breakout season, but after the Tigers cruised to a 10-1 start, Boddie was ruled academically ineligible for the second semester. Auburn managed to go 20-12 and make its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2004, but it lost in the first round to George Washington.
With Boddie back and Bonner emerging as a WNBA draft pick, the Tigers reached their potential this season, coming out of the gate with 20 straight wins, including an 82-68 thrashing of Tennessee in January.
Auburn finally realized Fortner’s dream of an SEC championship last Sunday with a victory against Arkansas. When next week’s NCAA tournament selections are announced, the Tigers’ biggest concern isn’t whether or not they’ll make it in, but if they can snag a No. 1 seed.
“I didn’t think it was possible,” Bonner confessed. “Coach Fortner just kept telling us to keep working and something special is coming down the line.”