The Atlantic Sun Conference has taken some huge hits from defections.
Losses of Central Florida, Florida International and Florida Atlantic hurt the A-Sun, particularly in baseball.
But with Florida Gulf Coast joining North Florida and Kennesaw State as being postseason eligible in 2010, three of the A-Sun’s newest teams have renewed hope that the league will return to the days of being a multi-bid league in the NCAA tournament.
“I think for sure it’s going to be a two-bid league, if not this year, from this year on,” FGCU coach Dave Tollett said. “The talent Kennesaw State had with two first-rounders chosen (Chad Jenkins and Kyle Heckathorn) and another player it had recruited (Zach Wheeler). North Florida. I think Jacksonville is very good, Stetson is very good.
“With the talent level where it’s at, it’s the best sport in the A-Sun.”
The new schools have shown a willingness to play with the big boys. Out of conference, FGCU will play 13 games against Miami, Florida, Clemson, Oklahoma State, Wichita State and Michigan. Just two are at home. North Florida and Kennesaw State each play six games against similar opponents.
“That’s the goal we have,” Kennesaw State coach Mike Sansing said, referring to an NCAA bid. “If we don’t win the conference tournament, we feel we’ve built a good enough schedule where if we can win some of those games, we can get a bump up in RPI.”
These schools are hoping to help the A-Sun return to being a fixture in the Memorial Day selections. From 1995-2007, the A-Sun had two teams in every NCAA tourney except 1998. In 1997 and from 2000-03, three teams represented the conference.
Here Comes The Sun
North Florida, Kennesaw State and FGCU each have made the climb from NAIA to Division II to Division I.
FGCU, which won the A-Sun the past two seasons under Tollett, is located in Fort Myers and in just its seventh season of baseball (it has won at least 35 games every year). Tollett’s record is 230-99 and he has sent 10 players on to professional baseball. This season, lefthander Chris Sale is a projected first-round draft pick, and catcher Bobby Greene could go in the top 10 rounds.
The Eagles finished atop the regular season standings each of the last two years, but were not eligible for the postseason. Now they are the favorite for an automatic bid.
“For the last two years, on May 15 we’re done,” Tollett said. “Now the ending point is up to us.”
Kennesaw State is located 25 miles from Atlanta. The Owls won the 1994 NAIA title and the 1996 Division II championship. Both were under the direction of Sansing, who has won 726 games and has a .688 winning percentage in 18 seasons for the Owls. During the mandatory four-year reclassification period, Sansing’s squads have produced 116 wins, two second-place conference finishes and eight players taken in the draft.
“The last couple of years, we had a lot of juniors and seniors in our program,” Sansing said. “Even though we weren’t postseason eligible, we had some kids who had the opportunity to play right away. We got some very good players; and once they got going . . . “
North Florida, located in Jacksonville, will undergo a coaching change after this season, when former Louisiana State coach Smoke Laval will replace the retiring Rhodes. In 21 years at the helm, Rhodes has compiled an 856-389 record and guided UNF to 16 postseason appearances, including five World Series appearances and four district championships while in NAIA.
Rhodes said his program was set back by not joining Division I sooner. “We only would’ve had to sit out one year,” he noted. “Everybody we recruited against made sure to tell players we couldn’t go to postseason play for four years. The transition period is too much and too long. That really hurt Kennesaw State and us.”
FGCU baseball wasn’t affected as much because Eagles officials chose baseball to be on the short track. It’s a process where the NCAA allows schools transitioning to Division I to choose one men’s sport—besides basketball—to have the chance to compete in postseason play in two years.
A-Sun schools face a lot of challenges: small budgets, keeping quality assistants, getting quality home games and having to offer top prospects more scholarship money than SEC and ACC schools.
“We had a lot of kids play for love of the game the past two years and my hat is off to them,” Tollett said. “I was like Bugs Bunny—I was out of carrots. But now, there’s a different kind of excitement because we’re good. And now we’re NCAA eligible.”