It was perhaps the overriding question surrounding the Florida Gulf Coast women’s soccer team after they, at long last, finally got over the hump in the NCAA Tournament and won a first round match, against South Florida. It was sweet vindication for a program that has become a constant in the postseason but had also been dealt close to impossible matchups with the likes of Florida in the past half-decade.
For a program like the Eagles though, one has to wonder if that win was a peak or just another stop on the road to the top of the mountain. The first decade of FGCU’s existence almost beggars belief. They finished in third place in the Atlantic Sun in their first season of existence and have never finished lower than fourth. Six straight league titles heading into 2016, along with four of the last five A-Sun Tournament crowns. And this is a club that simply doesn’t lose league games, having not lost in A-Sun action since 2012 and having accrued just nine league losses in nine seasons.
Part of that league form is a testament to FGCU’s scheduling strategy, which has often resembled a credo of “anyone, anytime”. That was in evidence on the opening weekend of the season, when the Eagles headed out to California and split a pair of matches, beating UC Davis after a very competitive defeat against West Coast Conference contenders San Francisco. Eagles head coach Jim Blankenship noted the value of the road trip as not just a playing experience but also a bonding experience for a club that added double digit newcomers in the offseason, while also believing that the weekend’s performances were “a good foundation and starting point” for the grueling season to come.
Opening weekend was all prologue to this week’s, however, as FGCU returns home to host perhaps the biggest two-match stretch in club history, with big conference titans North Carolina and Ohio State coming down to Fort Myers. Considering most mid-major schools, even ones with as much cache as FGCU, can only get agreements to travel to the biggest schools, such a back-to-back home series is a rarity and one that has obviously excited the Eagles.
Blankenship was quick to point out that the weekend was “phenomenal for our program and the community to see soccer at such a high level,” with the Tar Heels and Buckeyes both coming to town. It’s not hard to see the storied duo coming on the road to play FGCU as another important signpost of the growth of a program that only began play in 2007 and which has won more major trophies in a decade than most DI programs have won in two or three.
As is the case with many coaches at this level, including the boss of one of UNC’s opponents last week, UCF’s Tiffany Roberts-Sahaydak, Blankenship was effusive with praise of the Tar Heels and head coach Anson Dorrance. The head coach of the Eagles pointed out that North Carolina was a preeminent example of the level that he wanted to see his program ascend to, and that Friday’s match with the Heels was a perfect opportunity to help set his club along that path.
If the Eagles are to pull off an upset (or two) against a pair of undefeated opponents, they’ll likely need big contributions from Tabby Tindell, the club’s senior forward who has been a class apart in her three-plus years with the club. Tinder has shattered the record books in Fort Myers, coming into this weekend with fifty-two goals and twenty-three assists.
Though Blankenship noted the star power that’s come through Fort Myers in the past decade, he also acknowledged Tindell’s status as the first real star forward the club has produced, making it easier for the senior forward to hit the headlines as a rising force in attack for the Eagles. The FGCU head coach eagerly praised Tindell’s intangibles besides her scoring ability, noting that she “leads by example and is the hardest working kid on the field,” for the Eagles while also doing her best to make her teammates around her better, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
Beyond Tindell, the rising level of talent in Fort Myers has been all too clear, now stretching even beyond the borders of the United States. Notably, in this recruiting class, Blankenship was able to bring in Norwegian youth international Emilie Olsen (who started both matches last weekend), as well as Irish youth international Jamie Finn. The coach attributed this to a confluence of multiple factors, including having a handful of international players in the past such as Swede Julia Roddar as well as having alumni that have played in Europe in the past.
But increasing talent and challenging non-conference schedule aside, Blankenship knows that another NCAA Tournament appearance without another A-Sun Tournament title will be difficult. The perils of playing in a smaller league like the Atlantic Sun are all too apparent to mid-majors like FGCU, knowing that history is against them in terms of at-large bids to the Big Dance. Blankenship knows that the road to more A-Sun glory isn’t an easy one though.
The Eagles’ head coach was quick to state that he didn’t think the league got the respect it deserved at times and that “four or five programs in the Atlantic Sun that are just as good as us,” with the league’s seven game conference season making any slip-up against those teams potentially fatal to league title hopes. In a conference where the overall league title winner also hosts the final rounds of the conference tournament, taking care of business against league rivals is also paramount to A-Sun Tournament hopes.
Blankenship tells his players that “it’s hard to get to the top but harder to stay there”. The FGCU boss wants his program to be one that is a consistent NCAA Tournament competitor that is capable of pulling off upsets but knows that in a world where iron sharpens iron, testing one’s self against clubs the calibre of North Carolina and Ohio State is a necessity to steel a program for the high stakes Atlantic Sun season as well as any potential NCAA Tournament opposition.
They’ll be underdogs again this weekend, but these Eagles have flown higher than anyone could have expected just a decade into their history. A potential upset or two this week could have them reach greater heights still.
Florida Gulf Coast hosts North Carolina on Friday at 7 PM EST and Ohio State at 6 PM EST on Sunday.
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