Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Don’t Mess With the Eagles’ Nest

National powers like Florida State, Tennessee, Texas, and UConn have dominated in women’s sports, but since the fall of 2007, none have held a better home winning percentage than the FGCU Eagles.

The Longhorns, Seminoles, Volunteers and Huskies should not feel bad though because Alabama, Arizona, Baylor, UCLA, Louisville, Michigan, Michigan State, Missouri, Ohio State and Penn State also can’t win at home like the Eagles.

FGCU entered the Atlantic Sun and NCAA Division I athletics in the fall of 2007 and its women’s team sports have been rolling opponents ever since. The Eagles women’s soccer, women’s basketball, softball and volleyball programs have been dominate at home since the start of the 2007-08 athletic season. Since the fall of ’07, FGCU holds wins in 84.3 percent of its games in Fort Myers, Fla. in those four women’s sports. The Eagles own a mark off 119-20-5 on their home turf/court.

“One thing we really have going for us is a strong vocal fan base,” FGCU women’s head basketball coach Karl Smesko said. “We know there are a lot of things to do in Fort Myers, so we never want to let them (the fans) down so we make sure we give a great effort each time we are on the floor.”

The FGCU women’s soccer team owns a mark of 14-6-5 in its three year existence on its home turf, the FGCU Soccer Complex. On the hardwood of Alico Arena, the Eagles women’s basketball team owns a mark of 30-3 since the 2007-08 season, with a record of 107-9 in the building since it opened. The women’s volleyball program owns a mark of 29-4 in Alico Arena since the fall of 2007, just one win off the women’s basketball torrent pace. Things don’t get easier for A-Sun foes come spring time in Fort Myers because the Eagles hold a mark of 46-7 on their home softball diamond.

“Even some of the places we travel with great facilities don’t get great crowds but our fans are always out supporting us,” senior Ashley Yance said. “We get a lot of locals with little or no ties to the school but they are big supporters. People in Fort Myers have really bought into this program and bought into FGCU.”

Despite moving up to Division I in 2007, one thing that has remained the same for FGCU has been its coaches in Smesko, soccer coach Jim Blankenship and softball coach David Deiros. Each started their program at FGCU and each has had amazing early success in Fort Myers, Fla.

Deiros has lead the Eagles to 33-plus wins in each of his eight seasons and posted a combined 327-90-2 record. In their first season at Division I, the Eagles won the 2008 Atlantic Sun Conference regular season championship. This past year, the Eagles finished the season ranked #23 in the nation.

“Our administration has really made a great effort to make sure that all the sports at FGCU are competitive,” Deiros said. “They especially done great work with the women’s sports. I know we have a great home record the last two years (46-7) but overall we hold a mark of 95-25 in the last two years, so I think we are better at home but overall we are just a good team.”

Smesko and the women’s basketball have never posted a season with 10 or more losses in seven seasons. Last season, Smesko, who was voted A-Sun Coach of the Year, led the Eagles to a regular-season Atlantic Sun Championship with a 17-3 record.

“We don’t approach home games any differently, we try to come into each game with the same approach,” Smesko said. “We have moved up a couple of times since I’ve been here and each time it gets tougher.”

Blankenship holds a mark of 32-16-6 since starting the women’s soccer program in the fall of 2007, earning at least 10 victories in each of his first three seasons. Also in those three seasons, Blankenship has coached two of his players to the A-Sun Freshman of the Year award.

“Looking at the University and what we have to offer here, I think we are on par with any place in the country,” Blankenship said. “We are kind of the nation’s hidden secret.”

Dave Nichols recently finished his season as the head coach of FGCU volleyball team, guiding the Eagles to a third-place finish in the conference and the A-Sun Championship final match. In his first season with the Eagles, Nichols led FGCU to the 2008 Regular Season Atlantic Sun Championship with a 20-8 overall record and an 18-2 conference record.

Since the start of the 2007-08 sports season, no school in the Atlantic Sun has posted victories against FGCU in all four of these women’s team sports in Fort Myers. ETSU sits as the only A-Sun women’s basketball team to defeat the Eagles in Alico Arena in that span. Only Lipscomb and Jacksonville own wins against FGCU volleyball at Alico Arena, leaving seven conference schools that have never posted a victory in a women’s sport in Alico Arena. During this run of female team sport dominance, Belmont, Kennesaw State, USC Upstate and Stetson have not been able to post a road victory against FGCU in volleyball, women’s soccer, women’s basketball or softball.

“We share a mentality and we are very comfortable at home and we take great pride in our play and part of that is taking care of business at home,” Blankenship said. “It is not something we talk about (protecting home turf), it is understood.”

Since the fall of 2007 no team in the A-Sun holds more victories or fewer losses at home then FGCU. The Eagles boast only 20 losses in the four major women’s team sports. No other school in the conference holds less than 50. Mercer sits as the closest team in the Atlantic Sun to FGCU in home winning percentage, during the same time frame, as the Bears hold a 60.8 winning percentage (Reminder: FGCU wins at an 84.3 percent clip). The Eagles’ 119 wins since joining the conference also ranks as an A-Sun best with no other team in the conference holding more than 91 (Mercer-second with 91).

If conference wins are not enough, the Eagles have also bested solid non-conference foes both at home and on neutral ground. FIU fell in Fort Myers to the women’s soccer team, UCF to the volleyball team. Florida, UCF, Cornell and USF have come to Alico Arena to take on the women’s basketball team and all have left with additional loss on its record. With a much longer schedule, the Eagles’ softball squad owns the most victories against “major conferences” with home triumphs against then - No. 13 DePaul, Michigan State and Boston College. FGCU softball also boasts neutral site wins against the likes of USF, Ole Miss, Oregon State, Mississippi State, Indiana and UMass.

“I think the days of us sneeking up on people are over,” Deiros said. “We (softball) got ranked pretty high a year ago and I think we have really started to mark a name for ourselves.”

Nationally few teams hold better home marks, Florida wins home contests at a 90.3 percent clip, Stanford at 89 percent, North Carolina also wins more than more than FGCU at home scoring victories in 86 percent of its home contests.

The day may come when FGCU ranks right along with those national powers and fifth-year senior volleyball player Ashley Yance remains proud to be one of the building blocks to the get the Eagles to that level.

“Those of us that came here and started this tradition will look back in 20 years when this is a huge program and say we start that we were there when that school was Division II and helped it become a Top 25 program in the nation.”

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