We have a winner.
With a chance to defend its title in the A-Sun Championship Final on the line Friday evening, Florida Gulf Coast accomplished what it hasn’t been able to do even once in the last four years – defeat in-state rival Jacksonville.
This night, however, with everything at stake and the drama heightened in front of an exhilarated “Dirty Bird” home crowd, the Eagles netted a goal in each half to put an end to the drought and advance to Sunday’s final.
“This was a hard fought victory,” said FGCU Head Coach Jim Blankenship. “It is important to be here at home, and we talked about what that would mean when we began the season.
“We got the breaks we needed, and put away the goals we had to. The early goal really settled us. Hats off to them, though, and we are fortunate to be playing for the final. We’ll take it, but we will have to play better to survive on Sunday.”
“Them being able to host as the top seed is certainly an advantage. This is not a neutral site game,” said Jacksonville Head Coach Brian Copham. “I expected it to be a hostile environment, and this was like a road game for us. This is one of the most difficult places in the conference to play, because they do a great job and generate impressive support of their programs.”
Given the success of both programs, the recent history of this emerging A-Sun rivalry is intriguing. Despite the success of both programs, neither team had been able to claim a victory in the series in each of their last four meetings.
The last two previous victories belong to Jacksonville, a 4-3 win in Ft. Myers in 2007 and a 1-0 win in 2008, Brian Copham’s first season as the Dolphins’ head coach.
FGCU’s victory is its first against Jacksonville since joining the A-Sun in 2007. In fact, the Dolphins were the only current A-Sun team that FGCU has not defeated since joining the conference five years ago.
“This is a great matchup because both programs have a ton of respect for each other,” said Blankenship. “We match up well against each other and the results over the last few meetings certainly make for an interesting story.”
The previous four meetings had all ended in ties, beginning with a 1-1 deadlock in double overtime in 2009. A scoreless tie in 2010 was followed by another scoreless duel in double overtime in 2011, and this season a 1-1 tie was a pivotal component to the Eagles’ receiving the No. 1 seed.
“The programs are very similar,” said JU Head Coach Brian Copham. “I think one of the strengths of both teams is how we ask our teams to play. We try to remain organized in the back and stay defensively sound in order to not give up goals, then string together passes and possess the ball as much as possible.
“Neither of us gives up a lot of goals because we place an emphasis on defending. I guess four goals in four years is a testament to the fact that we have been able to do that.”
ETSU took a 1-0 lead into halftime, but Jacksonville gained momentum early in the second half and midway through the second half hit FGCU with everything it had in a string of near misses and great Eagle defensive play.
Because these teams know each other so well and have a mutual respect for each other, neither takes anything for granted and understand what the other brings to the field each time they step across from each other.
“You have to capitalize on opportunities, because you don’t get many good scoring opportunities against them,” said Copham. “You can’t let an opportunity go by and count on taking advantage of one in the future, because there may not be another good one. You won’t see 15 or 20 chances to score against either one of these teams.”
Blankenship concurs. “These are two good teams that battle. We knew we had to take care of the ball and eliminate mistakes. They are well coached and winning was not going be an easy feat. Over the past few years we both have walked away feeling like they were fair results. Both of our systems work, and neither of us will change what we do well.
Trailing at the break, Copham’s Dolphins began to surge in the second half and did everything they could to produce the equalizer. Down a player late in the second half, JU lost its defensive balance as it pushed forward and FGCU added its second score. Despite the result, Copham’s team displayed the same resolve with which it had played all season.
“I like the character of our team. When we are faced with adversity, and we have been on a number of occasions, our players still believe and still compete,” said Copham. “Our team has never backed down.”
On Friday night the defending champions proved why they will be back in the championship final on Sunday.
“Both teams understood what was in front of us. This season we have had opportunities to be successful, and we have a few on the table," said Blankenship. "This time there were different ramifications. We had to play well to move on. Tonight it was time to take care of business.”