AthleticsBaseball

March goes in and out like a lion for baseball

While the men’s and women’s basketball teams both were enjoying short-but-sweet soirees with March Madness, FGCU’s baseball team was celebrating March Gladness with an unprecedented run of success.

It began with a 7-3 win over the University of Florida at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers on March 7 that was followed by another victory over the Gators, 3-2, in Gainesville the very next night. A week later, the March Magic continued in a 5-2 win over Florida State, again at JetBlue. And the March of Triumph through Florida’s Big Three college-athletics powers culminated March 29 with a 3-0 victory over the University of Miami, that final dragon-slaying before a record crowd of 2,074 that seemed even bigger judging from the numbers of fans standing rows deep behind the baseline fence at a juiced-up Swanson Stadium.

Throw those program-defining victories (the Eagles were previously a combined 10-35 against the Big Three) in with a February win over Florida Atlantic and a 2-1 decision March 22 over then only once-beaten South Florida, and it became crystal clear which college baseball diamond was shining brightest in the Sunshine State during the first half of the 2017 season. In fact, the Eagles’ only loss to a Florida school was in their first such matchup, 13-7 to Bethune-Cookman, but FGCU followed that with a two-game sweep of the Wildcats that launched a run of 21 wins in 22 games and counting, with the Miami win extending the team’s victory streak to nine games at the time.

What it all added up to was a No. 9 national ranking entering the Miami game that, by all indications, was trending up entering Atlantic Sun Conference play in April.

While the basketball team hangs its hat at a home it calls “Dunk City,” the baseball program that has produced major-league pitchers Chris Sale, Casey Coleman, Jacob Barnes and Richard Bleier, along with several minor-league professional arms, could be tagged the “Ace Place.” While no members of the 2017 staff might have Sale-type “stuff,” as they call it, certainly one leader of the balanced bunch is Naples junior Mario Leon, who after losing his first game to Sacred Heart in February has faced all of the Big Three along with FAU and USF, going 3-0. Among position players, junior shortstop Julio Gonzalez, a native of Puerto Rico, got off to a team-high start in the .350 batting range and was among the runs-batted-in and extra-base-hit leaders.

Those two led the late-inning win against Miami, with Gonzalez’s bases-loaded single in the bottom of the seventh inning breaking a scoreless tie, and Leon allowing just two hits in seven shutout innings.

“It was extra special to be able to do it in front of an outstanding crowd at home,” said Coach Dave Tollett, the founder of the program who won his 500th game earlier in the season. “I’ve never seen Swanson Stadium that electric in my 15 years at FGCU.”