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Everyday Champions: Cultural Explosion

This story originally appeared in the spring issue of Everyday Champions, the official quarterly magazine for Georgia Tech Athletics. Read the entire issue here.

By Stan Awtrey

After Nell Fortner was introduced as Georgia Tech’s head women’s basketball coach in April 2019, one of her first acts was to meet with each player on an individual basis. Questions were asked, answers were forthcoming, and Fortner proved to be a good listener.

That simple act, a baby step in the process of building relationships, helped set the tone for the program’s new direction. Those quiet conversations began the cultural shift that paved the way for the Yellow Jackets making their invigorating run in the 2021 NCAA Women’s Championship.

“You can’t predict the future,” said Lotta-Maj Lahtinen, who had completed her freshman season when Fortner arrived. “There’s always a fear of the unknown. But I had a really positive feeling from Day One. I knew we were going to do great things.”

“Great things” may be a subjective term, but it does seem fitting for the 2020-21 team’s list of accomplishments that include:

  • First trip to the NCAA Sweet 16 since 2011-12 and second in the program’s history
  • First trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2014
  • First time to advance to the ACC Tournament semifinals since 2012
  • A 17-9 overall record and third-place finish in the ACC’s regular season
  • A No. 22 final national ranking in the USA Today/WBCA Division I coaches poll

And in the team’s heart-stopping 54-52 victory over Stephen F. Austin in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the Yellow Jackets overcame a 17-point halftime deficit, the fourth-largest comeback in tournament history.

“It’s not really a surprise because everybody works so hard,” said senior forward Lorela Cubaj. “We were a young team, and you don’t know what to expect from the freshmen, but they came in here and they listened and worked hard.”

The effort to build a cohesive team began by consolidating behind certain core values. One of Fortner’s first acts was the implementation of the “six pillars” of the program: trust, faith, effort, communication, respect and responsibility. It identified expectations – put them down in black and white — and ensured all parties were on the same page. If there was ever a question, a look at the six pillars could provide an answer.

“Nell introduced it to the team,” Lahtinen said. “It let us look at who we are, who we wanted to be, what her staff wanted to be and what she wanted the team to be. It was her building it with us, but at the same time she introduced it to us. We all bought into them and took them as the value of our team.”

Fortner said the concept of the pillars goes beyond basketball and can be applied to everyday living.

“If you try to lead your life this way, not just at Georgia Tech, it will follow you the rest of your life,” Fortner said. “I feel they will guide you where you’re always doing the right things, trying to be the best you can be.”

Perhaps the key pillar for this group was trust, the foundation for which was established early and has put down deep roots.

“Without trust, you can have nothing else,” Cubaj said. “That became part of our culture. It helped us understand where we were at and the new people understood what our values are. Everybody was dialed in.”

It wasn’t long before the environment around the program began to evolve. The players, young and old, bought in and any residual fog was lifted.

“It was a complete culture change,” said senior guard Kierra Fletcher. “The top priority was knowing what it would take for us to trust her and what it would take for us to trust her. She took that and ran with it. She took the time to learn about each one of as individuals, and it made a difference.”

Lahtinen said, “Nell is a problem solver. She doesn’t yell that much … well, all coaches yell some. She’s building you up. Every time she talks to you, you know she respects us and sees the potential in us. She looks for the best way to solve the problem and get things working.”

But Fortner, who has led three previous teams to conference championships and coached the U.S. national team to three international titles, was quick to deflect all the credit back to the young women on the team.

“The credit goes to them,” she said. “They had to be the ones to accept the new staff, to buy into our vision, buy into how we do things, and they did it from Day One. When we met with them, they felt the energy and the genuine love we had for them. This was going to be our family in the world of basketball, and they bought into it.”

Under Fortner’s direction, the program was saturated with joy and happiness. Even practices were a pleasure.

“This staff has a lot of experience coaching kids and seeing what they’re capable of and helping them grow their game,” Fortner said. “You’d better be having some fun and enjoying it and looking forward to practice, because practice can be a grind. You’ve got to embrace and enjoy that, and I think we’ve helped them understand that so they can continue to grow and get better.”

After going 20-11 in her first season, the Yellow Jackets began the year with modest expectations. A preseason poll of the head coaches in the ACC picked Georgia Tech to finish fifth and a “Blue Ribbon Panel” selected by the league tabbed them to finish ninth.

The Yellow Jackets won four of their first five games, losing only to ranked rival Georgia in overtime. The team was 4-3 when everything began to come together. The veterans were hitting their stride, and the freshmen were growing in confidence. It led to a seven-game winning streak, a stretch that let the players know their hard work was paying off. It became obvious the team was on the right path.

“It was gradual,” Cubaj said. “The first time we started to see it was when we had that seven-game winning streak. That’s when we started rolling and started to click.”

Fletcher said, “Once we got some good quality wins and got on that winning streak, we finally realized we could be one of the top teams in the country. There wasn’t just one star player, and in a way that’s what makes it so special.”

The seven-game winning streak wasn’t strictly a McCamish thing. There were wins at Clemson, at Wake Forest and at Miami, as well as four home wins over Virginia Tech, Florida State, Syracuse and Clemson.

“When we went through that winning streak, that gave us a lot of confidence,” Fortner said. “We won some close games that we had to gut out. We won on the road, so we became confident when we went on the road. That streak showed us what we could turn into when we worked hard.”

The genesis of the success can be traced back to summer workouts. When the team was able to assemble, it didn’t take long to realize the Yellow Jackets were on the verge of something special. Five freshmen joined the team and became important pieces of the puzzle. The older players even adopted the newcomers as their little sisters and formed bonds that grew tighter as the team went along.

“It all started in the summer,” Lahtinen said. “That’s when we started to build our culture. We took it upon ourselves to have great chemistry. It all starts from trust and culture and carries to the practice floor and then to the game. It’s all the sum of who we are and how we work. It’s how we are able to come into games and perform.”

Along the way there were numerous individual honors. Cubaj became the first Georgia Tech player to be named All-ACC first team since 2016. She averaged 12.5 points and led the ACC with 11.5 rebounds and was named the ACC co-Defensive Player of the Year.

Lahtinen was selected as the ACC’s Most Improved Player, the first time a player from the program has captured the award. She upped her scoring average by 5.5 points and produced a team-leading 15 points per game. She was named to the All-ACC second team.

“Those are two excellent awards, and I’m super proud of them,” Fortner said. “Those are gritty awards. Those are tough awards to win. To play defense takes a lot of desire and effort, and Lorela anchors us in that area. And to be the most improved player in the conference, among all the great players … I’m so proud of Lotta-Maj, she’s so driven.”

Fortner was also named ACC Coach of the Year after guiding the team to third place in the ACC, the highest outright finish in program history.

The program had a nice run in the NCAA Tournament. After its remarkable comeback win against Stephen F. Austin, the Yellow Jackets handily defeated West Virginia, 73-56, and gave No. 1-ranked South Carolina all it could handle before succumbing, 76-65.

There was disappointment among the players and staff after the loss, but it was tempered with resolve.

“My main takeaway is that this team has a really incredibly bright future,” Fortner said. “We have to put some work in in the off-season, and we’ve got to get better individually so we can get into this game next year and have a different outcome.”

Shortly after the season ended, Cubaj and Fletcher said they would return for their fifth season. Fletcher, a four-year starter, averaged 13.5 points and 5.5 rebounds. Their commitment makes prospects for 2021-22 even brighter.

“I was very proud of our team and our performance this season,” Fletcher said. “But my goal is to make a deeper run in the NCAA Tournament, which I believe we can do next year.”

Those high expectations are just part of the legacy built in 2021.

“We’re already building a legacy,” Lahtinen said. “It’s only up from here. The new players, I want them to be comfortable and be confident, be comfortable with the whole team. It doesn’t matter if you’re a freshman or a senior. The legacy is to play for each other and play for the coaches. That’s the gist of it all.”

 

BY THE NUMBERS

22
Final national ranking in the USA Today/WBCA Division I coaches poll

FACT
Georgia Tech’s third-place finish in the ACC was the highest outright finish for the Yellow Jackets in team history.

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