(Note: This article is part of a series, by Jeff Dahn, that highlights specific collegiate baseball programs going into the 2011 season. To view the articles on other schools in this series please click here.)
FORT MYERS, Fla. – Florida Gulf Coast University, located in the far southeast reaches of the Fort Myers metropolitan area – really no more than a paper airplane toss away from the Southwest Florida International Airport – has only been offering degree courses since 1997.
Its baseball program didn’t come together under the guidance of Coach Dave Tollett until before the 2003 spring season. In the eight seasons that preceded the one about to begin in 2011, Tollett has built a program that advanced from NAIA classification to NCAA Division II and then on to NCAA D-1 three years ago.
In a recent conversation at the beautiful, palm tree-lined campus bordered with conservation areas and “wildlife crossing” signs and alligator awareness signs along the main thoroughfare – FCGU Boulevard – Tollett frequently invoked an analogy, an imagery, really, involving a lion and a gazelle.
“Sometimes we wake up in the morning and we don’t know if we’re the lion or the gazelle, so we just get up running,” Tollett said from the comfortable confines of a conference room in the recently built FGCU athletics offices that overlook scenic Swanson Stadium, the ballpark that features dozens of palm trees growing beyond the outfield fences.
This is an NCAA Division I baseball program in its infancy. This will mark the ninth year for the FGCU program, which played its first season in 2003, just six years after the university opened the doors to its classrooms. The Tollett-coached Eagles have won at least 35 games in each of their first eight seasons.
“You don’t need to look for another job because we went from NAIA to D-II to D-I – it was like having three different jobs,” Tollett said. “It went quick. The success we had surprised a lot of people. We have two guys in the big leagues already.”
Those MLB players are left-hander s Chris Sale and RHP Casey Coleman. Both players have interesting profiles on this site from Perfect Game events they attended while in high school.
Sale was a 1st-round Draft pick of the Chicago White Sox (13th overall) in the 2010 MLB Amateur Draft and was an All-American who went right from FGCU to Class-A, Triple-A and the Major Leagues within three months last year.
Sale, a native of Lakeland, Fla., made his MLB debut in August, 2010, and made 21 appearances covering 23.1 innings, and compiled a 1.93 ERA with four saves and 32 strikeouts. He was 11-0 with a 2.01 ERA with 146 strikeouts and 14 walks in 103 innings for the Eagles last spring.
“Without question, (Sale) helped put us on the map,” Tollett said. “People said, ‘Wow, this kid’s pretty good.’ He was the ‘Collegiate Baseball’ Player of the Year, and he was first team All-American and he had a lot of accolades, but then when he made it to the Majors as quick as he did, it definitely helped us.”
Coleman, a right-hander and a native of Fort Myers, was taken in the 15th round of the 2008 MLB Amateur Draft by the Chicago Cubs and made his Major League debut in August of 2009.
Sale took his rapid rise from the up-and-coming university in Fort Myers to Chicago’s southside in stride.
“Honestly, I just take it for what it’s worth,” he told naplesnews.com last summer. “I don’t try to make too much out of it. I obviously recognize what’s going on but I don’t want to turn into one of those guys that’s always reading about myself in the newspaper. I appreciate it, don’t get me wrong, but I try not to get ahead of myself.”
That’s pretty typical of the type of ballplayer coming out of Florida Gulf Coast University. This is a modern, well-respected university that is far too young to have a big head about anything, be it baseball or academics or the seemingly untouched, virgin nature of the campus itself.
FGCU is a university of about 12,000 undergraduates that continues to grow in stature each year.
“The bigger the university gets, the better the program gets as far as funding,” Tollett said.
The on-campus dormitories sit next to a large lake that features 900 yards of beach-front with powerboats, sail boats, kayaks and other recreational activities.
You arrive at the Florida Gulf Coast University campus via FGCU Boulevard, a palm tree-lined thoroughfare that leads into a cluster of modern buildings in a somewhat secluded area. North Lake Village houses the campus’s dormitories which hug the large lake in what Tollett described as a “country club setting.”
There are tennis courts, a softball field, 4,500-seat Alico Arena (the home of the men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball teams), a soccer complex, an aquatics center and, of course, Swanson Stadium. Everything just comes across with a first-class aura.
It is in both the outer reaches and central campus area where students and others encounter the “Alligator warning” signs, which one visitor from Iowa found at once fascinating and unsettling. “Alligators are present on campus and please don’t feed them,” was the jist of the message. It was simple enough for the Iowa visitor to understand.
The state of the art building housing the athletics offices opened in 2008 and all of the facilities on campus – athletic and academic – are modern and first-rate. The school is in the process of putting a roof over the main grandstand area of its softball field and will be adding a roof over the baseball grandstand next year.
“We need one, because it gets hot,” Tollett said.
FGCU will begin its fourth year in NCAA Division I in 2011. It posted an overall record of 112-53 in its first three seasons as a D-I school.
The university is now a member of the Atlantic Sun Conference with Mercer, Eastern Tennessee State University, the University of North Florida, Jacksonville, Stetson, Belmond, Kennesaw State, Lipscomb, USC Upstate and Campbell.
FGCU won its third straight ASC championship in 2010 with a 25-5 league record and overall mark of 38-20.
“The Atlantic Sun is a great fit for us,” Tollett said. He said the move from D-II to D-I was born of necessity.
“What actually prompted the move was that it was hard for us to schedule D-II,” Tollett said. “After our last year (in D-II) we had played 38 regional games and 34 on the road. They weren’t going to let us into the Sunshine State Conference, so we weren’t going to have a conference. We were just an independent D-II school and it was getting harder and harder for us to schedule regional games (in order) to make postseason play.
“I don’t think it’s been as tough as people thought it would be,” he continued. “The caliber of D-II baseball in this state is pretty good so I think that helped in the transition.”
The Eagles return six position players from their 2010 conference championship team, but Tollett admitted it’s difficult to replace a player as outstanding as Chris Sale.
“But we’re excited about the season and we’re ready to get going,” Tollett said.
The Eagles’ top returning position players in 2011 are senior infielder Mikel Alvarez (.409, 99 hits, 63 runs, 11-13 SBs), senior third-baseman/catcher Tim Roberson (.332, 13 HRs, 63 RBIs, 60 runs), senior outfielder Luke Smierciak (.323, 9 HRs, 52 RBIs, 52 runs) and senior shortstop Stephen Wickens (.359, 17 doubles, 62 runs, 18-22 SBs).
The top arms back belong to senior right-hander Richie Erath (7-4, 4.42 ERA, 14 starts) and sophomore left-hander Kevin Bryant (1-1, 5.21 ERA).
Each one of those players participated in Perfect Game events while in high school. When Tollett spoke to Perfect Game early this week, PG had conducted its National Underclass Showcase-Main Event and was preparing for its World Showcase, World Open and National Underclass-Session 3 in Fort Myers Jan. 8-9.
It is a dead period for D-I recruiting, which means Tollett cannot attend the PG events, but he welcomed PG to town nonetheless.
“Perfect Game has definitely changed the landscape of recruiting,” he said.
Tollett recruits the Fort Myers-Naples area relentlessly, and has found FGCU to be a relatively easy sell. He recruits against the powerhouse programs from Florida, Florida State, Miami and all the other Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference schools, but he isn’t bringing a knife to a gunfight.
“Now that we’ve become Division I we’ve expanded our territory a little bit, but we’re still primarily in Florida, and that’s just because our recruiting budget is not up to where it gives us the ability to recruit as much nationally as we would like to,” Tollett said. “It’s tough in this state. There are a lot of great programs and you battle it every day.”
As visitors walk into the baseball locker room/clubhouse on the FGCU campus, there is a photo of Omaha, Neb. – the home of the College World Series – on the wall, and off to the side is big puzzle piece with the letters “FGCU” emblazoned on it. That piece hasn’t fit into the puzzle – yet.
“Everything we do is a piece of that puzzle,” Tollett said. “We talk about it all the time, and sooner or later it can’t be a dream anymore. It has to be an expectation. Are we there yet? No. Are we getting closer? Yeah. But right now it’s a dream.”
Tollett was a high school coach at Charlotte High School in nearby Punta Gorda before coming here to get the FGCU program off the ground. He jumped from high school to NAIA to NCAA Division II and now heads one of the newest programs in NCAA D-I. As he’s climbed from one level to the next, he hasn’t noticed a whole lot of difference.
“I enjoyed my time at Charlotte, and if you ask me my philosophy, I think good coaches prepare kids for the game and I think great coaches prepare them for life,” Tollett said. “For me, when I took the job here, it was the same job because we had to develop the kids. We’re not getting the five-tool player. We still have to develop the kids and we still have to coach as hard as we can coach.
“We’re getting there, but again, we don’t know if we’re the lion or the gazelle in the morning – we’re just getting up running,” he continued. “We’ll figure it out about noon – are we being chased or are we chasing something. It’s coming. It’s progress (and) I think each year we get a little bit better, the recruits get a little bit better and I think that comes with time.”
What follows is a list of players on the most current 2011 Florida Gulf Coast University roster who participated in Perfect Game events while still in high school. Click on the player’s name to view his complete Perfect Game profile:
Mikel Alvarez – PG WWBA/PG BCS
Tyler Anderson – PG WWBA/PG BCS
Brandon Bednar – PG World Showcase/PG WWBA/PG BCS
Brandon Bixler – PG National Underclass/PG WWBA/PG BCS
R.J.Brown – PG WWBA/ PG BCS
Kevin Bryant – PG National Underclass/PG WWBA/PG BCS
Harrison Cooney – PG WWBA
Craig Crumbly – PG WWBA
Alex Diaz – PG National Underclass/PG WWBA/PG BCS
Sean Dwyer – PG WWBA/PG BCS
Richie Erath – PG WWBA/ PG BCS
Jason Forjet – PG WWBA/ PG BCS
Jake Foley – PG WWBA/PG BCS
Ashton Fronsoe – PG WWBA/PG BCS
Robert Greene – PG WWBA
Brandon Hernandez – PG National Underclass/ PG WWBA/ PG BCS
Richard Knapp – PG World/PG National/PG National Underclass/PG WWBA/PG BCS
Patrick Nathanson – PG National Underclass/ PG WWBA
Alex Norris – PG WWBA/PG BCS
Kirby Retzer – PG WWBA/ PG BCS
Mike Reeves – PG Midwest Top Prospect/PG WWBA
Tim Roberson – PG WWBA/PG BCS
Luke Smierciak – PG World/PG WWBA/PG BCS
Javi Sujo – PG National Underclass/PG WWBA/PG BCS
Andrew Swain – PG WWBA/ PG BCS
Andrew Valencia – PG National Underclass/PG WWBA/PG BCS
Brian Walker – PG World Open/PG WWBA/ PG BCS
Stephen Wickens – PG Midwest Top Prospect/PG WWBA
If there is a college program that you want PG to do a story on, please feel free to let us know. Email Jeff Dahn at firstname.lastname@example.org.