Early risers are rising at Florida Gulf Coast

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Sarah Hansen has a secret. Somedays, she grabs a quick nap.

That is, when classrooms are dark and quiet.

''Maybe five minutes,'' the Florida Gulf Coast guard insists. ''Sometimes. Not even.''

With the schedule that the Eagles face on a daily basis, naps are probably the team's best friend. They practice most days at 6 a.m., meaning alarm clocks start going off around 4:30 a.m. or so, the training room is filled with half-awake people about a half-hour later, and the sound of bouncing basketballs begins echoing in an empty gym not long afterward.

They are early risers, and they are very much rising.

Winners of 17 straight games, the Eagles have already clinched the Atlantic Sun's regular-season title and will be the favorites to represent their conference for the second straight year in the NCAA tournament next month. And this week, Florida Gulf Coast even got one vote in the AP Top 25 poll, the first time that's happened this season.

''We know that our goal is to win a conference championship and win the conference tournament and as a reward for that we would get a chance to get to the NCAA tournament again,'' Eagles coach Karl Smesko said. ''And we feel like we have the kind of team that if we get to the NCAA tournament, we can win games. We try to prepare ourselves as best we can for that tournament situation.''

So that means practices must be intense, sharp, focused.

And when it's still dark outside, that's not always easy to do.

''You're an athlete, so you sacrifice here and there,'' said guard Brittany Kennedy. ''But, oh, it can be rough.''

Rough might be an understatement.

The Eagles are on the practice floor before most students on their campus, which is nestled on the Gulf coast side of Florida almost equidistant between Miami and Tampa. In reality, they're probably on the practice floor before some students on that campus are in bed for the night. Some of the Eagles players say they need to be in bed by 9 or 9:30 p.m. - simply unheard of for most college kids.

With class schedules, internships and other obligations that the Eagle players have, the only solution was to play before school starts.

''We'd prefer not to go as early as we do,'' Smesko said. ''It's definitely not a preference. Me, I don't mind getting up early. The kids, it's not their preference. We have done it the last two years out of necessity. It's not something we do every year - or want to do every year.''

That being said, there's no allowance for 6 a.m. sloppiness, either.

If something's not right in practice, Smesko - a mild-mannered coach who has quietly built a mid-major giant at FGCU, averaging more than 26 wins per season in his career, taking his team to a Division II title game and then to the NCAA field last year in its first season of Division I eligibility - lets his team know right away to clean it up.

''It's never pretty when we first get out here,'' said Hansen, who averages a team-best 18.7 points per game, as team sports information director Michael Hill nodded in agreement. ''Everybody's a little groggy. We have some people who aren't really morning people, me included. Some days it takes a little longer to warmed up than it should, but once we get into it, we really can't play extremely sloppy basketball. With coach the way he is, if we get sloppy, he gets on us, tells us we're not performing the way we need to.''

Of course, there usually isn't that much stuff for Smesko to be all that upset with.

Florida Gulf Coast went 29-3 last season, setting an NCAA record with 342 makes from 3-point range. The Eagles made the NCAA field as the A-Sun champions, and nearly knocked off favored St. Bonaventure in the first round, falling in overtime.

And it hurts them to this day. The Eagles led by 10 with less than 6 minutes left in regulation.

''We were right there,'' Kennedy said. ''We should have had that game. We all know that. But we can't dwell on the past. We learned from it, and we're playing to get back to that position again.''

So maybe that's one of the reasons why getting out of bed before anyone else on campus probably is doesn't hurt the Eagles.

At least, not too much.

''I would say I'm extremely motivated by everything that happened last year,'' Hansen said. ''Just being so close to where we were and having that opportunity, basically in our hands and just taken away from it, it was one of the worst experiences I've ever gone through related to basketball. We were one possession away from winning a game in the NCAA tournament, having a chance to go to the Sweet 16.''

That memory, some days, is the only wake-up call she needs.

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