Florida ready to ground high-flying Eagles

HERALD STAFF and WIRE REPORTSMarch 28, 2013 

Manatee High graduates Colby Lengel and Alex Doran have trouble brewing in the NCAA tournament bracket.

Like the rest of the Florida Gulf Coast University student body, the sophomores are caught up in the excitement of the men's basketball team's stunning run to the Sweet 16.

"Awesome. It's a very electric atmosphere all over. We just had a pep rally," Doran, a former Manatee wrestler and nursing major, said Wednesday afternoon.

"It's pretty crazy to see kids you see every day now having bodyguards around them wherever they go," said Lengel, a resort and hospitality management major who played free safety on the 2010 Manatee football team that advanced to the state final.

But Lengel and Doran already had favorite college basketball teams. Lengel roots for the Florida Gators, FGCU's foe in Friday night's regional semifinal, and Doran's family backs Michigan, a team the Eagles could meet in the next round.

"I don't know who I'll root for," Doran said.

Lengel, who is a fraternity brother of FGCU starter Chase Fieler, didn't hesitate: "I'm rooting for the school I go to."

It's the first time FGCU fans have had to worry about their school meeting up with

any of college basketball's heavyweights on a national stage. The Eagles made the NCAA tournament for the first time in just their second year of eligibility.

Sunday's victory over San Diego State made FGCU the first No. 15 seed to advance to the Sweet 16.

Used to be, when you said you were attending Florida Gulf Coast, the people back home looked at you quizzically. Not any more.

Almost immediately after the Eagles bounced Big East powerhouse Georgetown on Friday amid a frenzy of spectacular dunks, media outlets from The Washington Post to Forbes to The New York Times started calling. Then ESPN televised the school's Monday prep rally.

Suddenly trips to the book store for a T-shirt began to resemble Black Friday at Sawgrass Mills. Weekend nights, once reserved for boozing in pubs like Uptown Larry's, are now punctuated by horn-honking victory celebrations and impromptu plunges into North Lake -- the latter being frowned upon.

Of course, there are plenty of Florida Gator fans in Manatee County who scoff at the idea that FGCU's Cinderella season will continue past Friday night.

The third-seeded Gators are 13-point favorites against the Eagles.

Bradenton Vice Mayor Gene Gallo, a longtime director of the Manatee County Gator Club, had no trouble making a prediction.

"It's definitely great to have three colleges from the state of Florida (Miami plays Thursday against Marquette) in this. But I think Florida will win based on their experience and the pressure they've been under in the past.

"Plus, I think the seniors for Florida will step up a little bit bigger than the players from Florida Gulf Coast," he said.

It's true FGCU players and fans are unused to the rarified air of the NCAA tournament.

Doran said students were unsure how to celebrate Sunday's victory on campus.

"As soon as the game ended, we looked outside, and there were groups of people walking. We followed them down to the arena and there were probably 1,000 people there. We had an impromptu press rally outside the arena," Doran said.

Doran is the second member of his family to attend FGCU. Sister Jessica graduated in 2007 with a degree in elementary education.

Alex Doran said his sister is "just as pumped as I am" over their school's time in the spotlight.

"I am, very much so," said Jessica Doran, who works in the marriage license/passport office at the Manatee County Courthouse. "I am surprised because when I went there, it wasn't like it is now. When my friends and I went, it was just to socialize."

What's happening at Florida Gulf Coast and in Fort Myers is the type of marketing and branding boom that schools with relatively upstart sports programs (like Florida International University and Florida Atlantic) have been chasing for years.

The intensity has been magnified by the way the Eagles play. They display an in-your-face aggression, brandishing an array of alley-oop dunks.

Two games in, they are the most talked about team in the country.

"There's people who don't even know where Florida Gulf Coast is who are big fans right now," said Lewis Hardy. He is the CEO of Licensing Resource Group, the company that represents the university on trademark licensing and brand development.

On Saturday, the day after the Eagles upset Georgetown, sales of FGCU apparel and gifts were up 1,000 percent compared to the same day in 2012, according to Follett Higher Education Group, which manages the college bookstore.

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