Stephanie Gaitley has been to the NCAA women's basketball tournament eight times as a head coach, but this year is different.

It's been 14 years since the Ocean City native's last appearance in the Big Dance. The last time she was there, Twitter and iPods did not exist.

Perhaps more importantly, this time she's leading a program that has not experienced success like this in two decades.

"There's just a special feel to being in the NCAA tournament," Gaitley said in a phone interview Friday from Waco, Texas, where her Fordham University squad will take on California in the first round today at 4 p.m.

Gaitley, 54, took over the Fordham program three seasons ago. The Rams had not had a winning season since 1994-95 and had not been to the tournament since the year before that. They won 12 games the season before Gaitley's arrival.

But the 1978 Ocean City High School graduate brought with her the stifling defensive style that helped her teams earn seven NCAA tournament berths - two at Richmond and five at Saint Joseph's - from 1990-2000. She also has coached at Long Island University and Monmouth since then.

This season, Fordham went 25-7 and rolled to its first Atlantic 10 Conference title. The Rams set an A-10 record by allowing an average of just 41.3 points in their three conference tournament games. In the title game, Fordham held Dayton to 32 points below its season average in a 63-51 victory.

"If I'm being honest, I didn't think it would happen as quickly as it did," Gaitley, who still comes back to Ocean City for several weeks each summer, said of the program's turnaround.

The Rams were greeted by cheering fans when they returned home to the Bronx after the A-10 tournament. They took a charter flight to Waco on Thursday and basked in the NCAA tournament environment Friday. Gaitley said she was glad her players got to experience that.

"The fact that they felt so special the past week was great because it's so critical to building a program," Gaitley said. "They learn to hate to lose. Then they go to the next level."

Gaitley said her philosophy is that her players should focus on defense. She doesn't want them to worry about missing shots on offense.

"I want you to be more upset that your person got a wide-open shot or an offensive rebound," she said.

Gaitley also credits her team's leadership, particularly senior co-captains Erin Rooney and Abigail Corning. Rooney also played for her at Monmouth, transferring when Gaitley made the move.

"We really have adopted a lot of similar characteristics (to her Richmond and St. Joe's teams)," Gaitley said. "My best teams are the ones with the best leaders."

Rooney and Corning both said it starts with Gaitley. The players respect her experience, and they appreciate how she treats them. Gaitley, who is in her 28th season as a head coach, said she has learned to listen to her players more.

"She really cares about us as players, but most importantly as people," Corning said. "She's the first one to demand of you and get on you when you're not doing what you need to do, but at the same time she's the first one to give you a high five or a pat on the back when you do something right."

Corning was a sophomore when Gaitley arrived. She said she never expected that the program could be turned around so quickly.

Rooney, on the other hand, believed in her coach. That was part of the reason why she transferred from Monmouth.

"I knew at some point, coach was going to do that. She's done it (in other places)," Rooney said.

Gaitley said the existence of social media has made Fordham's run even more exciting. Students have let the players know on Twitter how excited they are.

More than anything, though, it's the fact that Fordham struggled so much in recent years that has made this season so sweet.

"St. Joe's had a history of success," Gaitley said. "Taking Fordham over was totally different. … There's a feeling and excitement around campus of doing something that hasn't been done before."