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‘Dunk City’ basketball tournament success makes FGCU proud to be recognized

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — Sophomore Adam Linn lives smack dab in the middle of "Dunk City," and even he didn't pick his own school when filling out brackets for the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

"I wanted us to win but I didn’t think we were going to beat Georgetown at all," Lind said of Florida Gulf Coast's first opponent. The Eagles since have done even better than beating Georgetown, becoming the first 15-seed ever to reach the Sweet 16.

And what about the game Friday night, against intrastate giant Florida?

"Oh, we’re going to win," said Lind, a criminal justice major. "We’re not scared of no Florida Gator."

It's remarkable what a couple of surprising victories have done for the collective confidence of the smallest state school in Florida, one which didn't even start offering classes until 1997. You have to do a little searching to find FGCU fever, though.

Of the 13,615 undergraduates enrolled here, about 4,200 live scattered on the 760-acre campus, much of which is built among protected ecological lands. About 2,000 students live in dorms — most of which are only a few years old and were built via a university initiative to create a "freshman experience." Distance learning had been, and still is, a priority. Perhaps 80 percent of students have taken at least one online course.

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So we're not talking about a massive amount of residents in a traditionally tight community. Perhaps because it was Good Friday afternoon, the campus was kind of quiet in the hours before the biggest basketball game of the year. It's definitely a laid-back place in general, where students get around on skateboards, staff ride in golf carts and you have to watch for the wild life — though the plentiful alligators in the water usually keep their distance.

And yet, like many other fans paying attention, they're especially into March Madness here because of the upstart Eagles.

Allison Witmer, a sophomore art major, says the activity at the Cohen Center bookstore has been bustling all week since the team returned from the first rounds of the tournament.

"The line's been outside the door with people buying t-shirts," Witmer said.

And before "Dunk City" incorporated last week?

"It’s been really dead on campus, not much school spirit, not very many people wearing FGCU attire or anything," Witmer said. "Once we got into the tournament, everyone’s been crazy and hyped about it. We’ve had our whole city of Fort Myers at our campus. It’s just been crazy."

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Witmer is part of the 1 percent of FGCU students who aren't from Florida. An art major, she also played soccer in high school and with a club team in the Sugar Land, Texas area. She'd like to play for the Eagles' women's team starting in the fall, once she has healed from injuries — so she appreciates the athlete's point of view when it comes to fan support. Witmer describes herself as the antithesis of the bandwagon fan, though she's glad to have them.

"I’ve always been a fan, actually," Witmer said. "I go to the games, most of the men's home games, and I support all of the sports teams here. I haven’t always been a Florida resident, but I’m just really glad to be at this campus at this school now.

"It’s made us a bigger deal. People used to think this wasn’t even a real school. They'd say, ‘Oh, they’re just down there somewhere.’ Nobody even knew where we are. And now we’ve become recognized. People know who FGCU is."

And where: It's is the location of "Dunk City," named for FGCU's high-flying, slam-happy style.

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Carl St Hilaire, a junior engineering major who was born in Haiti but grew up in Fort Myers, came by the bookstore and got his hands on a white "Dunk City" t-shirt.

"I'm all about the alley oops and crazy shots," St Hilaire said.

St Hilaire says FGCU can play competitively and even beat Florida — which wouldn't even have crossed his mind as possible before the tournament started. And even if they don't win any more games, he thinks the men's basketball team already has transformed the school.

"More people are visiting the campus. More tourists," St Hilaire said. "A whole bunch of school spirit, it’s risen to another level. To go out to a bar and watch the game, it’s packed. Not just the school but the community itself is so into the whole ‘Dunk City’ madness."

Psychology instructor Jim Matiya has been teaching here for five years, and has seen enrollment jump from about 8,000 since he arrived. But he's never seen anything affect the school like what's happened with Eagles basketball.

"It’s getting to be more and more like a college," Matiya said. "It is a university, but the idea of identifying with the school, this is really going to be it. Now, with the basketball and the "Dirty Birds" group, it really helps to build a cohesiveness, to make people realize, ‘We’re a school. It’s my school.' "

Matiya came by Alico Arena ("The Nest") — where FGCU plays its home games — to buy a blue and green T-shirt the athletic department was selling. He also sported a school I.D. that FGCU made for faculty and students that renamed the place "Dunk City."

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(Please don't hold the typo against FGCY, er, U. It does not reflect on the quality of the education offered there.)

Like Witmer and St Hilaire, he likes the idea of everybody associated with the school wearing the same colors, supporting a common frame of reference. It's something the big universities — like Florida — have enjoyed for decades, but that places like FGCU still have to build. And he also knows that FGCU could use the revenue, thanks to recent budget cuts at the state level. FGCU needs more classrooms.

"Being the smallest of the state schools, they need money," Matiya said. "It’s cheap to go here. And not that many people know what a good school it is."

Watch parties for the Florida tournament game are spread out — from area bars, to the local ice hockey arena, to individual houses and apartments. The city of Fort Myers Beach, a few miles away on the gulf shore, is planning a big party. The area is finally getting to be known for something more than spring training baseball (the Red Sox and Twins play nearby). People have become aware of FGCU.

"I definitely think they’re will be more people coming to the school in general and a lot more players will be looking at FGCU as well," St Hilaire said. "Basically, it’s a feeling of pride that you go to FGCU, like for big schools. They’re probably proud to go to U-F or wherever, but now we’re proud to have our own school. The whole United States knows us know, so that’s pretty good."

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