Feb. 25, 2010

By Douglas Kroll

Think of baseball in the State of Florida and the big boys come to mind. Florida State, Florida, Miami are the big three that everyone knows about. Those teams, you have seen on television playing well into June in the great city of Omaha. Then you have UCF, USF, FIU, and FAU, too.

But looming off in the distance on the state's gorgeous West Coast, tucked away in beautiful Fort Myers, is a team that no one's really heard about yet. Key word being yet.

Go ask the other Atlantic Sun teams about this team and they'll probably shake their heads.

Florida Gulf Coast.

The Eagles won the last two A-Sun regular season championships by a combined 7.5 games. So why hasn't anyone heard about Dave Tollett's team? They were a team in transition from Division II. No postseason allowed, not even the A-Sun tournament, until 2010.

The best team in the league knew when their season would be over the last two years. Not the greatest feeling a team could have.

All along Tollett had a plan. Even just getting to the Division I level seemed like an impossible dream eight short years ago. Tollett started the Eagles program as an NAIA school that didn't even have a field or any scholarships back in 2001.

So having the league's best record with no place to go left some a bit bitter, but not that bitter when you put things into perspective.

How do you bring in talent to win conference championships with no dream of a championship? Promises. Promises of championships in years to come. Lay the foundation, and good things would come.

The talent kept coming for Tollett. The promise of playing time at the Division I level, and the dream that the NCAA Tournament would be in their hands within a couple years, was enough for guys like Chris Sale to come.

Sale has been tabbed as one of the top pitching prospects in this year's MLB Draft, a sure-fire Top Ten pick. The junior lefty can hit 93 with his fastball, while his changeup rides in the low-80s. Numbers that make any scout drool over, especially a lefthander.

The Lakeland, Fla. native faced six batters in the opening game of the season against Temple and struck out four batters without allowing a baserunner.

"We're all really excited about this year," Sale said. "We've worked hard to get here the last few years. We've had an end date the last couple years, and now we can create our own destiny. Everyone's ready to go for the season."

He's one of the reasons why, to no one's surprise, the Eagles were picked before the season to win the Atlantic Sun once again. And this time, there's no end date to their season.

But with so many schools in the state vying for the same talent, nasty recruiting wars can break out at any time. The warfare can be harsh, brutal. Those new in-state rivals used it against Tollett's program every chance they got.

"The fact we couldn't play in the postseason was used against us in recruiting battles all the time," Tollett said. "They'd ask the kids `Why would you want to go there if you can't make the postseason?' And things of that nature."

But look out now. Talk to people in the college baseball circles, and they'll tell you that Florida Gulf Coast could be right up there as the third or fourth best team in the state in 2010. They'll sure get to prove it.

Games against Miami, Florida, Oklahoma State, Clemson and Wichita State will test this group. But Tollett wouldn't have it any other way. The non-conference portion of the schedule has been deemed one of the hardest in the country by some publications.

"We always believe in putting our kids in that arena," Tollett said. "If we do get to a Regional, our kids would certainly be prepared for what's there."

Confidence can go a long way in baseball. You'll hear some of the best that have ever played the game talk about how the game is more mental than physical.

This group of Eagles believes they are not only one of the best teams in its own powerhouse State of Florida, but in the country.

"We have a really good team," First baseman Zach Maxfield said. "We've played [teams like Miami] before. We know what to expect, and we expect to win."

What could have been the last two years if they had been postseason eligible? No one really knows. They can't think about it that way. The lid has been lifted.

And this year's team is loaded.

"I believe in this team," Tollett said. "They work hard, they are focused. They know the task at hand. If we get caught looking ahead all the way to May, we'll be in trouble. The target is going to be even bigger on our backs in conference play now that we're eligible for the postseason. The games mean a bit more against those teams."

Guys like Sale and Maxfield get a kick out of pulling into opposing stadiums and having the home crowd have no idea who they are or where they have come from.

"It's really exciting, people don't know too much about us," Sale said. "We came out of the woodwork the last couple of years and surprised a lot of people. We've had two really good talented ballclubs. This is the year to prove to people, it's time to show people we are just as good as these other teams. People will look at us differently."

Wichita? Stillwater? Clemson? You've all been warned. The Eagles are coming in 2010.