by Graham Hays, ESPN.com
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com.
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For a guy who hasn't gone anywhere, Karl Smesko has come a long way.
As a result, Florida Gulf Coast is going places.
A decade ago, Smesko was the coach of what he thought would be an NAIA program, one that had yet to play its first game. He worked out of a makeshift office in a trailer he shared with other members of the fledgling athletic department. His first individual workouts took place on the asphalt of an outdoor court, constructing a team even as the school in Fort Myers, Fla., constructed a building in which it could play.
Yet his team won by 17 points the first time it took the court. The next night, it won by 46 points. It lost just once that first season, rolling to a 30-1 record against the likes of Indiana Tech, Cardinal Stritch University and Flagler College.
Like a lot of coaches winning in the most distant reaches of college basketball, Smesko moved on to bigger and better things. Unlike almost any of his peers, he didn't actually move to do so, save for relocating to a better office. The first women's basketball coach at Florida Gulf Coast University, the one whose team beat Ohio Dominican University in that first game on Nov. 22, 2002, is still the only coach in program history. He led Florida Gulf Coast in its rapid rise through Division II and into Division I. And he finds himself with one of the most intriguing teams in the nation this season, a 3-point launching, turnover-forcing group that is on the outskirts of the Top 25 at 24-2.
It would qualify as success beyond anyone's wildest dreams, if not for the reality that bold dreams were all the coach had to sell at first.
"It's one of those things where you have to find some players that are maybe willing to see what you see," Smesko recalled of the program's start. "Be able to envision what is possible rather than what is actually before their eyes."
What is possible is now right before their eyes. In the program's first season of NCAA tournament eligibility after completing the reclassification process to Division I, Florida Gulf Coast is on the verge of finally taking its place in the real madness of March after four consecutive trips to the WNIT. The Eagles clinched the Atlantic Sun regular-season title and improved to 16-0 in league play with a convincing 79-56 win against second-place Stetson on Feb. 18. If they defend their No. 1 seed in next week's conference tournament, their first as members of the Atlantic Sun, they go dancing. And they might stick around.
To understand how Florida Gulf Coast got here, start with Kelsey Jacobson. It's not that the senior, currently third on the team in scoring, is a program-defining talent along the lines of Elena Delle Donne or Jackie Stiles, although she is 22nd in NCAA history in 3-point field goals and has a chance to crack the top 10 before she's done. But Jacobson is a talent who explains how the program defines itself. A native of Barnesville, Minn., a town about 30 minutes from Fargo, N.D., she spent the long winters and too-short summers in the upper Midwest shooting jumper after jumper in hopes of turning the same kind of 5-foot-8 frame seen in gyms around the country into a basketball commodity.
"Growing up, my goal had always been to play Division I basketball," Jacobson said. "It was never 'I want to get to the WNBA,' or 'I want to play pro.' It was always to play Division I basketball. So starting in seventh grade, I worked on my shot, just so that I could try to get to Division I. … Some people are more blessed with higher athleticism skills, but it doesn't matter how athletic you are, you can work on your shot if you start early."
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