While much of the Florida Gulf Coast University academic community spends the year’s hottest months either participating in summer sessions on campus, going off to work on research projects or developing new curricula, FGCU Athletics has some research and development of its own taking place.
The research takes place at the administrative and coaching levels, where the FGCU Athletics staff is busy working on the logistics of scheduling, travel, equipment, facility maintenance and improvement, and everything and anything it takes to operate a 15-team NCAA Division-I athletics program. The head coaches and their assistants also stay busy hosting summer camps for scholastic student-athletes in their respective sports — sometimes in multiple sessions — before splitting up and scouring the country at various showcases, tournaments and meets, looking to discover and recruit the next Eagle student-athletes.
On the development level, many of the current FGCU student-athletes use the summer academic sessions to catch up on or get ahead of their degree requirements; after all, while most students take the brunt of their classes in fall and spring, student-athletes are either competing in or preparing for their regular season and postseasons. Other Eagles play or compete with national and amateur clubs and teams as their way of staying in shape and improving their sports skills, while those in summer classes generally work out on their own within strict NCAA guidelines.
It all adds up to an athletics program that’s a winner both in the classroom and in competitive achievement. And before the 2019-20 FGCU Athletics season kicks off Aug. 22 with the women’s soccer team beginning its bid for a ninth ASUN championship in the past 10 seasons (the opener is against Florida International at the FGCU Soccer Complex), let’s check in to see everything that has been happening on the northeast side of campus.
Scoring big in sustainability
Like all FGCU students, athletes are committed to practicing and promoting sustainability, and that’s why the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics and USG Corp. selected FGCU as one of three finalists for the fifth annual USG NACDA Sustainability Award. Loyola University Chicago ended up winning, but in recognizing exceptional Division-I athletics departments that make volunteerism and community service a way of life, the Eagles were singled out for their all-time-high collective 7,200 hours served the year prior.
“Being placed in this celebrated trio is something we are extremely proud of,” FGCU Director of Athletics Ken Kavanagh said. “I want to commend Associate AD for Facilities and Operations Michael Miller for his significant role in spearheading this important project for us.”
Superstars in academics
Of course, FGCU student-athletes again nailed it in the classroom this past spring, registering a 3.32 GPA for the semester — just shy of last year’s record-breaking 3.35 — led by 40 student-athletes earning a 4.0 semester GPA. Combine those numbers with the eight ASUN regular season and tournament championships the program brought home in 2018-19 — bringing the total to 78 titles in 12 years of Division-I play — and you see why FGCU Athletics is, indeed, special.
“We remain exceptionally proud of our student-athletes for the outstanding efforts they continue to put forth in the classroom, while also succeeding in their competitions and serving as role models throughout Southwest Florida,” Kavanagh said. “Their devotion to excellence is a source of pride for not only FGCU Athletics, but for the entire university. We continue to be very appreciative of the tremendous roles that our outstanding faculty, Kelly Jean Brock (associate AD and director of the Hartley Academic Resource Center) and our academic staff, as well as our coaches and donors, play.”
While several individual athletes honored FGCU in 2018-19 by winning scholar-athlete academic awards, the FGCU volleyball team — while compiling its best on-court season in program history — earned the American Volleyball Coaches Association Team Academic Award. The indoor program compiled a 3.52 cumulative GPA this past year, including a 3.50 in the spring semester. The beach squad registered a program-record 3.65 cumulative GPA, highlighted by a 3.57 in spring.
Of course, that’s all history for the defending ASUN volleyball champions, who will begin their 2019 schedule with three matches in the Homewood Suites Fort Myers Classic in Alico Arena on Aug. 30-31. Coach Matt Botsford and his staff will welcome the entire team back on campus Aug. 7 after a busy June and July of recruiting. “We also use the summer as a time to re-examine the team’s performance from the previous season, highlighting areas that we need to address in the practice gym,” Botsford said.
Former student-athletes do FGCU proud
The summer months also saw two former Eagle stars enhance FGCU Athletics’ national and international profile.
While head softball Coach David Deiros and his staff were working the recruiting trail every weekend from Florida travel tournaments to a showcase in Huntington Beach, Calif., one of his greatest players — former slugger Carmen Paez, who starred as an All-American for the FGCU softball program from 2007-08 — was named to the fifth ASUN Conference Hall of Fame class. [ See video below ]
Paez, a former Division II Player of the Year who will be officially inducted during an Oct. 7 ceremony on FGCU’s campus, becomes the first Eagle softball player and only the third FGCU student-athlete overall to enter the hall of fame. She joins Boston Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale, who was a member of the inaugural class in 2015; and Team USA beach volleyball Olympian Brooke Youngquist Sweat, who was inducted last year.
Meanwhile, former FGCU women’s soccer player Julia Roddar played for Team Sweden at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France, won by Team USA. Roddar starred for the Eagles from 2012-15.
Kicker of a summer schedule
Speaking of women’s soccer, program-founding Coach Jim Blankenship and his staff are back at it full throttle in preparation for the opener against FIU later this month, after a whirlwind summer of conducting two camps and recruiting trips to New Jersey, California, West Virginia and Kansas.
He also lets his players in on the travel fun once the season starts. “We always try to plan for one big trip a year where our players can go experience something new and exciting with their teammates,” Blankenship said. “Last year, when we went to play at New Jersey Institute of Technology, we were able to spend a day in New York City and take the team to see the Broadway musical ‘Wicked,’ and it was an amazing time.”
New faces in coaching places
Perhaps Blankenship’s proudest offseason move was promoting one of his former players, one-time first-team All-ASUN player Ali Rogers, from director of operations to assistant coach. And Rogers’ hiring isn’t the only inside promotion that took place on the FGCU Athletics staff during the summer.
Karl Smesko, who famously builds his women’s basketball coaching staff with in-house talent, promoted Mandi Pierce from director of operations to assistant coach, while elevating Chelsea Lyles to associate head coach. Shannon Murphy also joins the program as an assistant coach.
The only head coaching change in Athletics over the summer was in men’s golf, where former Louisiana State assistant Andrew Danna takes over. Danna had led Lynn University in Boca Raton to its first Division II national title in 2018.
Other big splashes
Before head Coach Dave Rollins and his perennial Coastal Collegiate Swimming Association powerhouse swimming and diving team begin competition in September, he gets to celebrate the summer accomplishments of his swimmers, including sophomore Wiktoria Czarnecka, who Rollins said “finished in the top three in multiple events at the Polish National Championships.”
An equally big splash was made at the 2019 Eagles Golf Classic at Bonita Bay Club, where another record-breaking year collected more than $53,000 for the benefit of Eagle student-athletes.
Also, it was announced during the summer that the 2019 ASUN Championship race for both men and women cross country teams will take place Nov. 2 at FGCU’s Buckingham property, the first time FGCU has hosted the event in seven years.
But perhaps the biggest splash was made in the home of men’s basketball Coach Michael Fly, who took time out from recruiting, coordinating two basketball camps and general offseason program oversight to join his wife, Heather, in welcoming Jack Archer Fly to Eagle Nation at 10:04 p.m. June 19. Checking in at 21 inches and 8 pounds, 15 ounces, baby Jack has to grow a bit to top the tallest player on his dad’s roster, 7-foot incoming freshman Osborn Shema.
As you can see, plenty has been happening in FGCU Athletics during the summer. And to those who make this program a resounding overall success, it’s all well worth it. Women’s soccer coach Blankenship puts it best:
“At the end of the day, our goal is to create a welcoming environment that our students are proud to be a part of,” Blankenship said. “We spend our summers making sure we are doing everything in our power to compete in every game, and to provide a memorable student-athlete experience while spreading the FGCU name across Florida and the rest of the nation.”