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Florida Gulf Coast establishes consistent excellence

The Eagles have made either the NCAA Tournament or WNIT every year at the Division-I level

Syndication: Naples Daily News
The Florida Gulf Coast Eagles reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time this past season.
Jonah Hinebaugh/Naples Daily News / USA TODAY NETWORK

When Karl Smesko accepted the head coaching position at Florida Gulf Coast, the women’s basketball program was just beginning and did not even have a gym. Over the 21 years since, the Eagles participated in Division II, transitioned to Division I and have been consistent winners no matter which classification they were in.

Smesko’s crew has never had a losing season. In fact, FGCU has never lost more than nine games in a year.

“It’s definitely been fun to see the growth of the university and the growth of our program, our athletic program,” Smesko said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to witness our first game ever and the success we did at the Division II level and had the opportunity to experience the move to Division I. It’s not something I expected when I came down here to start the program, but it’s really been a fun ride.”

In the program’s first season (2002-03), the team lost just once to finish 30-1. The Eagles ended the year on a 21-game winning streak. Four years later, FGCU went undefeated all the way to the Division II national championship, where it ultimately fell to Southern Connecticut State University.

That was the Eagles’ final game at the level. In year one in DI, Florida Gulf Coast went 22-9 and reached the second round of the WNIT. After three more WNIT appearances, FGCU reached the NCAA Tournament in its first year of eligibility in 2012.

Florida Gulf Coast has participated in nine of the last 11 NCAA Tournaments. The Eagles have advanced to the second round four times, including each of the last two years.

“Coach Smesko does a good job sustaining the success,” associate head coach Chelsea Lyles said. “It’s hard. He’s just constantly looking for a new way to teach, a new way to coach and new terms to use. At the core, he’s still going to be a very disciplined, and he’s still going to have his belief about taking a high-percentage or high-return shot. So, a lot of his core beliefs have always been the same, but he’s just always developing and growing with the game. I think that’s why he’s been able to be so successful because he doesn’t stay the same. He is constantly learning, and we always play to our players’ strengths.”

The Eagles have revolutionized the game by embracing the 3-point shot more than 20 years ago, ahead of the curve in some respects. When coaching at Purdue Fort Wayne, Smesko’s team connected on 9.3 triples per game, which was the seventh most all-time in DII at the time.

In Fort Myers, Smesko’s Eagles have 34.7% from deep over the course of the program’s history. There has just been one game in program history where the Green and Blue failed to make a 3-pointer.

This past season, the Eagles led the country by making 11.5 trifectas per game. They also shot a nation-high 30.6 attempts from deep.

“It’s just so much fun knowing that I’m on a team with these amazing shooters,” rising redshirt junior Maddie Antenucci said. “We’re all going to push each other and make each other better shooters. And then getting out in transition, I never played like that in high school and AAU. It’s just a lot of fun, this fast-paced, free-flowing, everyone has a green light to shoot.”

FGCU connected on double digit 3-pointers in 26 games last season. The highlight was a 22-for-45 shooting barrage against North Florida on Feb. 4. That total is one off the program record of 23 triples, set back in 2021. Seven players knocked down at least one 3-pointer in the 55-point win at North Florida.

“Even if you come into the program, and you weren’t the best shooter at your other school before you came into this program, [Smesko]’s going to work with you every day to get you to the place that you need to be to help the team,” rising redshirt junior Kierra Adams said. “That’s one of his greatest strengths: to be able to teach people how to shoot. Eventually, people who weren’t able to shoot before, are some of the best on our team. It’s really incredible that he’s able to do that.”

Florida Gulf Coast plays a fast, loose style of offense. The Eagles often push the ball up the court and rarely run set plays, which allows the players to read and react to the defense.

“It definitely makes us a harder team to defend and gives us a lot more versatility,” Smesko said. “We just can play together and work together to create good scoring opportunities… For us, it’s really helped not only just our players enjoyment of playing, but also in recruiting and that a lot of potential recruits see our style of play, and it’s something that they really would like to be a part of.”

While the style of play can help with recruiting, the program has a strong track record keeping its players and even sees a strong connection between its coaching staff and athletes.

Of the five assistants from last year’s team, four played at least one season in Fort Myers. The one player who did not was Camryn Brown, who played at High Point for Chelsea Banbury, a former FGCU standout and associate head coach.

“[Former players becoming coaches in the program] plays an integral part,” Antenucci said. “Obviously, they know what it’s like. They’ve been through it, so it’s easier to develop a relationship with the coaches. They’ve been in our shoes, so they relate to us. It also speaks a lot about our program in general. We’re creating a family bond.”

Lyles, the current associate head coach, wrapped up her 15th season with the program. She played her final two years of hoops with the Eagles from 2008-10. She immediately joined the staff as a student assistant before becoming a full-time assistant in 2011. The Colorado native was elevated to recruiting coordinator in 2014. Lyles has been in her current role the last four years.

Through her decade and a half, Lyles has a unique perspective on the architect of the program, Smesko.

“When I played, I thought he was a great coach,” she said. “But now, 15 years later, I’m just like, ‘Oh my God, he’s an even better coach.’ He’s just constantly learning. He always has a book or two in his office that he’s reading, and he’s always watching videos. So that just pours down to us as assistant coaches and then, pours down obviously the players.”

NCAA Womens Basketball: Division I Championship-St. Bonaventure vs Florida Gulf Coast
Karl Smesko is the only coach in program history.
Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

Smesko characterized himself as inquisitive. He continuously studies what other teams are running. If he sees something he likes, he will look to install it with the Eagles. Even if FGCU doesn’t implement it, they will be prepared if an opponent uses it against them.

This constant searching and studying have guided the Eagles to ever-soaring new heights.