Altoona native, Florida Gulf Coast grad proud of team

Recognized for rare basketball talent since she was little and a former model, Mandi Pierce is used to drawing a lot of attention.

It just never happened because of the shirt of her college alma mater. Not until last week, anyway.

“I’ll go out wearing my women’s basketball shirt and people will ask, ‘Oh, did you play basketball?'” Pierce said. “There’s just a lot of positive feedback. There’s a lot of excitement.

“I just went to an interview. They said, ‘Oh, you went to Florida Gulf Coast. Go, Eagles!’ When they found out I played basketball there, they got so excited we talked about basketball in the interview.”

By becoming the first No. 15 seed ever to make the Sweet 16 in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, Florida Gulf Coast University is turning heads now, too. While the Eagles have becoming probably the most popular team in America during their run, they hold a special place in the heart of Pierce, the Altoona native who graduated from the fledgling school in 2008 and now makes Naples, Fla. her home long with her family.

“I’ve been on board with them since the beginning of the season,” Pierce, 27, said. “It means so much.”

The Eagles will take on Florida on Friday in Dallas to try to clinch a berth in the Elite Eight. Earlier this week, Pierce was one of a huge throng of people who turned out to support the team at a pep rally, where the atmosphere was electric.

“The enthusiasm on campus is enormous,” said Karl Smesko, who coaches the school’s women’s program. “The community support has been amazing. It’s really great to for somebody who’s been here for 12 years now to see all the attention our university is getting. We always knew we had a great university and a great place. It was just a matter of getting the word out there.”

It was Smesko who recruited Pierce – the Mirror’s 2004 girls basketball player of the year – when she decided to transfer from St. Bonaventure after her sophomore season. Pierce said Smesko found out about her from coaching acquaintances who had pursued her out of Altoona Area High School. Florida Gulf Coast was a year away from moving up to Division I, which meant she could play immediately there, but she’d never been to the Sunshine State before.

“After I got off the plane, I said ‘Of course, I’ll come to Florida Gulf Coast,'” Pierce said.

Pierce helped FGCU make the Division II championship game as a junior and took the Eagles to the Women’s NIT in the school’s first year of Division I competiton one season later. After graduating, she decided to stay in Florida, working in the hotel industry and modeling on the side.

Smesko thinks this run by the men’s team will help keep the FGCU women as a potent force.

“I think the national recognition and the name recognition is going to help all of our sports,” Smesko said. “It will make a big difference when we contact recruits and they already know about us.”

Smesko said Florida Gulf Coast graduates are just as excited as everyone else and a number of them are on their way to Texas to attend Friday’s game.

Pierce won’t be among them. She said she’s planning to go to a sports bar with friends to watch the game, though.

Like pretty much everyone else in the country, Pierce is surprised she’ll have the chance to see the Eagles playing on the last weekend of March. They started off against Big East power Georgetown, and only a handful of 15 seeds ever had beaten No. 2 seeds before.

FGCU, though, shocked the world and the Hoyas with their athleticism and alley-oop dunk attack.

“It was exciting watching them dunk. We’re ‘Dunk City’ now,” Pierce said. “You hope that they win, but, to be honest, I was a little unsure how they would do against Georgetown. Georgetown’s a big-name school with some big-name players. I was rooting for them, but I wasn’t sure how it would go. But, at the same time, they had beaten Miami early in the year, so I knew they had a pretty good chance.”

Guards Sherwood Brown and Brett Comer have gotten most of the attention during the Eagles’ wins over Georgetown and San Diego State. Pierce, though, sees another figure as the key behind Florida Gulf Coast’s run: Andy Enfield.

“I think their coach really motivates them and makes them want to play,” Pierce said. “I don’t know what he does, but those players are pumped up to play.”

And Pierce is pumped up to be an alumna of FGCU.

“The boys are putting us on the map,” Pierce said. “When I started there, it was Division II. We had a lot of success. But just the coverage now, so when I tell people I went to Florida Gulf Coast, they ask, ‘Where’s that at?’ now they’re going to know.”