FGCU ready for regional contention

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It doesn’t seem as if former San Diego State pitcher Stephen Strasburg and Florida Gulf Coast junior pitcher Chris Sale have much in common.

Strasburg is from California, while Sale calls Florida home. Strasburg was the top pick of the MLB draft last summer. Sale, though a great prospect and likely first-round pick, won’t quite be the No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft.

But there is one thing the outstanding pitchers do have in common: They are both the faces of their respective programs.

Strasburg didn’t lead the Aztecs to the College World Series last season, but he brought a plethora of headlines to the program and put SDSU on center stage in an NCAA regional matchup against Virginia. Strasburg gave the Aztecs the boost they’ve been looking for the past few seasons.

The same can be said for Sale, who guides the Eagles into their first-ever postseason-eligible campaign at the Division I level.

“I think comparing him to Strasburg is a great analogy, but for us he might be bigger than Strasburg,” Florida Gulf Coast coach Dave Tollett said about Sale. “We just don’t have the same name recognition as San Diego State. Sale has really helped us in terms of name recognition. He’s our Strasburg for sure.”

As with the program’s sudden success, Sale’s story mimics a dream.

Like many players on FGCU’s roster, Sale wasn’t a highly touted recruit out of high school. He never received phone calls from programs such as Florida State, Florida and Miami. He didn’t even receive phone calls from some Atlantic Sun programs in the Sunshine State.

But when he arrived on campus, Sale’s career quickly took a turn for the better under the direction of Tollett. Sale had a 3.47 ERA in 36 1/3 innings as a freshman. He compiled a 2.72 ERA in 89 1/3 innings as a sophomore last season.

Sale is the face of the program. He also is a perfect example of what the Eagles have accomplished on a larger scale the past few seasons.

The road to competing at the Division-I level has been interesting for Tollett and the Eagles. It also hasn’t come without some tedious moments mixed in with the great moments.

Unlike many programs, FGCU didn’t enter Division I with a stable of boosters lining up to donate. It also didn’t have fans snatching up season tickets like programs such as Florida and Florida State.

Somehow, the Eagles have made it work better than anyone thought.

“Fundraising has been the biggest challenge for this program,” Tollett said. “We didn’t have baseball before 2001 and we don’t have a lot of alumni. That makes it tough.”

Tollett also wasn’t sure how the Eagles would make the transition to Division I following the ’07 season in Division II. But the experiment has worked out perfectly thus far. The Eagles finished their first Division I season with a 38-15 record and an Atlantic Sun regular season championship. They captured another regular season title last season with a 36-18 record.

In both instances, the Eagles were left sitting at home at the end of the season. Under NCAA rules, programs that are transitioning to Division I aren’t allowed to compete in postseason play unless the sport is “fast tracked” by the institution.

“I think we knew the place we were in as a program,” Tollett said. “I think the kids were frustrated at the fact we couldn’t play in a regional. But as a coach, I just took it in stride. Shoot, I would’ve loved to be out there competing in a regional. But that was where we were at and that was what we had to do.”

That situation is no more beginning this season.

Florida Gulf Coast had the option last year to fast track one female and one male sport. Since basketball cannot be fast tracked, the Eagles chose baseball as the male sport to be fast tracked. The Eagles now have the ability to compete in an NCAA regional.

“Coach Tollett always said it was a dream of ours to get to Omaha because our season always ended on May 15,” Sale said. “Now we don’t have an end date and we expect to make it big at the Division I level.”

Fresh off back-to-back conference crowns, the Eagles enter the season as heavy favorites to win a third straight Atlantic Sun title. Only this time there will be no rule keeping the Eagles from making an NCAA regional.

With regional preparations in mind, Tollett has put together a challenging schedule. The Eagles will face Oklahoma State, Wichita State, Miami, Michigan and Florida. They also will travel to Clemson late in the season in what Tollett hopes is a primer for a regional at the end of the season.

“For us, one thing we always talk about is putting our kids in a regional environment. We haven’t been to a regional, so we have to get them in position to succeed in that type of environment,” Tollett said. “I believe we’ll be prepared with our schedule.”

Everyone associated with Florida Gulf Coast is ready for the season. The interest level around Fort Myers, Fla., is at an unprecedented level, and when Tollett walks around campus and the city, people know about the Eagles and many players on the team.

They especially know about Sale and FGCU’s regional hopes.

“It feels great that some people think I’m the face of the program,” Sale said. “But the biggest dream I’ve had since coming to school here was making a regional. Making a regional this season absolutely would mean the world to me.”

What was once a dream for Sale and FGCU is now in their control.

Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Yahoo! Sports and Rivals.com. Follow him on Twitter and follow Yahoo! Sports College Baseball on Facebook. Send Kendall a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Feb 8, 2010