The Times West Virginian

Sports

March 26, 2013

Florida Gulf Coast savors its ride to Sweet 16

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Sherwood Brown only wanted a bagel.

The Florida Gulf Coast star walked into a restaurant on campus Monday and was quickly surrounded. People wanted autographs. People wanted photos. People just wanted to yell words of encouragement.

A school that opened a mere 16 years ago finds itself front-and-center in March Madness, one of only 16 college basketball teams left from a field of 68, hoping to win the NCAA national championship.

“I had no idea it was going to be like this, but I’m loving it,” Brown said as he made his escape from the shop. “I feel like we’re getting a lot of America behind us. I guess you could say we’re a part of America’s team at this point.”

And the Eagles spent the day savoring their moment.

Lines in the campus bookstore snaked from one side to the other, more than 100 people waiting for the chance to pay for their FGCU shirts and hats. Phone lines were jammed by those seeking tickets for this weekend’s South Regional, and even the university president half-seriously wondered if he would be able to obtain what he needed. And as they arrived at classes, players were met with applause.

“It’s so brand new,” Eagles coach Andy Enfield said Monday, as emails popped into his mailbox at a fairly dizzying rate. “No one knows — no one knew — what FGCU stood for, the letters. Now it puts our university in a national spotlight and rightly so, because this is a great place. It’s a young, vibrant university with just a lot of energy. I’ve been trying to tell that story to a lot of people.”

The Eagles play Florida in the South Regional semifinals Friday night, two wins from a most-improbable trip to the Final Four. Seeded 15th in their region, FGCU knocked off both No. 2 Georgetown and No. 7 San Diego State in Philadelphia over the weekend to keep their season going.

Enfield’s lone mistake so far in the NCAA tournament may have been what happened when he went to bed around 5:30 a.m. Monday, roughly two hours after the Eagles landed home in Fort Myers after punching their ticket to the regional semifinals.

Before Enfield went to sleep, he forgot to silence his ringer. Suffice to say, he was awakened long before he wanted.

“It’s part of the moment,” Enfield said. “We’re happy to sacrifice a little sleep for the success of our program.”

Here’s maybe the best way to explain what’s happening right now with FGCU: In a state where the Gators are back in the regional semifinals, where the Miami Hurricanes (who lost to FGCU early this season) are still alive in the field and look very much like a title contender, and as the Miami Heat took a 26-game winning streak into their game at Orlando on Monday, it’s the Eagles who might be the best story.

LeBron James picked them to win one game in his bracket. Not two, though.

“Just a hunch,” the NBA’s reigning MVP said.

The Eagles — 26-10 overall and 13-5 in the Atlantic Sun Conference — are starting their own tradition, since they have no real tradition yet. Of the 19 banners that sway in their gym to commemorate various accomplishments, the earliest entry on them is for a women’s volleyball trip to the NCAA Division II tournament in 2004.

“You come from a small school like that, and everyone just kind of looks at us like a mid-week prep game. ‘All right, we’ll get our win mid-week and then we’ll get ready for conference play,”’ said Chris Sale, a former FGCU pitcher now with the Chicago White Sox. “I don’t think that’s the way it’s going to be from here on out.”

The school has about 11,300 students, half of whom come from the state’s southwest section. The campus — which includes a manmade lake and actual beach where students flock — sits on 760 acres of land donated by Ben Hill Griffin III. And that lends a certain irony to this Eagles-Gators matchup, given that Florida’s football team plays its home games in what everyone calls The Swamp but what officially is named for Ben Hill Griffin Jr.

FGCU is in such infancy as a school that its oldest alumni probably have yet to turn 40.

“I’ve been in higher ed for a long time, worked at several institutions, and I have not experienced anything like this phenomenon,” FGCU President Wilson Bradshaw said. “What has happened in the last three or four days has been exceptional. We’re getting, I’m getting, my staff members are getting emails and texts from all over the country, and it’s been very gratifying.”

The interest has been overwhelming, at least to the servers that host the school’s athletic department website. It crashed twice Sunday night, and other university sites were seeing huge upticks in visits.

Will Morse, a former soccer player at the school and now a graduate student, was waiting to buy a white sweatshirt at the bookstore. He hoped the investment of his time would lead to his parents making an investment of $200 for student tickets to this weekend’s games at Cowboys Stadium near Dallas.

“It’s for my mom’s best friend. I don’t know,” Morse said. “They live in Colorado and they became fans overnight, and they wanted a sweatshirt for their birthday. So I’m the kid who’s trying to make sure my parents buy me tickets.”

And the wait in those long lines lasted about as long as FGCU’s games have taken so far in this tournament.

“I think everybody’s shocked, mostly,” said senior Kristi Hurson. “We went out to watch the game Friday and were all joking that this wasn’t going to be a big deal. And then it was.”

Her friend and fellow shopper Erica Turczyn used three words to describe the mood on campus right now — crazy, nuts and chaos.

“Professors canceled classes today, some of them,” Turczyn said. “I don’t know how anyone can focus right now.”

Give FGCU guard Brett Comer some credit. He was trying to focus, anyway.

Comer got three hours sleep before waking up Monday to hit his statistics class. As he arrived, his professor asked why he was there.

“A lot of students didn’t seem to make it to class today,” Comer said. “But I was.”

He won’t be at any classes later this week. The team’s annual banquet is scheduled for April 2. Someone in the lobby of the arena saw that sign Monday and asked if it would be canceled if the Eagles make the Final Four.

A good question, one that no one even a few days ago would have imagined would have ever been uttered at FGCU.

“Our heads have not gotten bigger,” Bradshaw said. “But we really are excited about the attention that we’re getting. And I’ve said this before: If it takes our very successful basketball team to get people to come to our website and learn more about Florida Gulf Coast University — and there is so much more — then I’m fine with that.”

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