Rebirth of Sports at Florida SouthWestern
College again has athletic department, brand-new arena
BOUNCING BACK Florida SouthWestern State College returns to even more collegiate athletic divisions with its striking $27 million Suncoast Credit Union Arena, a new era for the school that dates to the former Edison Junior College in Fort Myers.
Sounds that once punctuated life for Florida SouthWestern State College students are back after a long absence. From the ping of bats on a baseball and the swish of basketballs through nets and the squeak of sneakers on hardwood floors to the calls by umpires and referees. Safe! Out! Traveling! Double dribble! So are the roar of crowds and so much more. The school, formerly known as Edison State College, launched a reborn athletics program last January with baseball and softball teams based at City of Palms Park in Fort Myers. The program kicked into even higher gear in early November when men’s and women’s basketball teams started playing home games in the new Suncoast Credit Union Arena on the south Fort Myers campus.
As arena construction proceeded, many passersby didn’t know what was reaching toward the sky. “You heard anything,” FSW athletic director Carl McAloose says. He was even asked: “Is it a football stadium?”
No, but that wasn’t a bad guess. The 3,300-seat, $27 million arena is now also home to the City of Palms Basketball Classic, one of the nation’s premier high school tournaments. The tournament had previously been played at Bishop Verot High School. The arena will also eventually be home to FSW’s volleyball team.
What was an empty patch is now Suncoast Credit Union Arena, a place of swishes and dunks and a new era of athletics for an old school.
From what had been essentially just a patch of hot asphalt, in the spring of 2015 construction crews began creating a distinctive building unlike anything in its neighborhood. It now stands gleaming and awaiting countless memories, dunks and jump shots and concerts and graduations and more.
It’s all part of a new athletic era for the school, which started life more than half a century ago as Edison Junior College. It fielded sports teams from 1963 to 1997, when the athletic department was closed. Edison actually dates to the 1940s, when the Thomas A. Edison State College opened in downtown Fort Myers, relocating to the barracks of the former Buckingham Army Airfield. It closed in 1948. The new Edison Junior College opened in 1962. Student fees in the first year were $70 per semester. The athletic teams evolved from intramural sports to an intercollegiate basketball team in the 1963-64 year, under Edison’s first athletic director, Tom Garcia. Athletic teams were the Buccaneers in blue and white. Baseball, men’s and women’s golf, men’s and women’s tennis, wrestling, softball and volleyball teams competed. Edison teams claimed successes, including the Southern Conference Championship for men’s basketball under long-serving coach Hugh Thimlar.
Now, it’s back in athletics, participating in junior college sports. When the school revived athletics it also brought back the Bucs. The arena has been a recruiting boon for basketball
“About 99.9 percent of people in basketball say they can’t believe it’s a junior college arena.” —FSW men’s basketball coach Marty Richter
coaches Marty Richter and Kristi Ward. “It’s a created a wow factor,” says Ward, who is coaching the women’s team.
Ward says she at times handed recruits a hardhat and safety vest and walked them over to the arena as work proceeded. “This is where you’ll walk out,” Ward told them, envisioning what the place would look like on game days. Very few junior college programs anywhere boast such a spiffy and large and new facility right on campus.
“I’ve had Division I coaches say they can’t believe it,” says Richter, a former Florida Gulf Coast University assistant coach.
That was also the reaction, Richter says, of many recruits and even other people involved in the sport. “About 99.9 percent of people in basketball say they can’t believe it’s a junior college arena,” he adds.
But it is. And as Richter recruited potential players the arena became a selling point, along with the school, its attractive campus and warm Florida weather. “I think it helps that you have an unbelievable facility,” Richter says. “You’ll be the first to ever play in it, the first to ever score in it. It helps that we’re in Southwest Florida, and then there’s the institution.”
Having a fine first year of basketball in the arena is just one goal, a mere beginning. “The key thing in all this is you build a foundation, a culture it can sustain,” Richter says. “Not just this year but 10, 15, 20 years down the road.”
When he was at FGCU, Richter coached in Alico Arena, a 4,500-seat, 120,000-square-foot facility that opened in 2002. “They’re both unbelievable,” Richter says of the arenas. “It’s just that this is 15, 16 years newer.”
And home to a new program, one that doesn’t want to feel junior college. “We’re trying to create a Division 1 atmosphere,” McAloose says. And more. “Our goal is to win national championships and graduate student/athletes,” he adds.
The FSW women’s softball team came close to a national title in its inaugural season, reaching the national tournament, where it lost a 15-inning heartbreaker to the eventual national champion. The baseball team also earned attention. The Baltimore Orioles selected FSW pitcher Willie Rios in the 16th
round of the Major League Baseball draft in June.
That’s a start to the revived athletics program at FSW. When the school’s basketball teams played in the 20th century, it was in Gresham Gym, an on-campus facility that looked like a high school gym and is now used for classrooms. That was then … Now, the school has a different name and different basketball home—that spiffy new arena that sprouted right there at the northwest corner of Summerlin Road and Cypress Lake Drive.
What was an empty patch is now Suncoast Credit Union Arena, a place of swishes and dunks and a ne w era of athletics for an old school.
FSW’s new Suncoast Credit Union Arena is home to school sports and the City of Palms Basketball Classic in December, among other activities scheduled at the $ 27 million facility in south Fort Myers.
FSW men’s basketball coach Marty Richter ( left) had served as an assistant with Florida Gulf Coast University. Twice named Mid- Florida Conference coach of the year, Kristie Ward last led Florida State College women’s basketball, and FSW athletic director Carl McAloose had served as AD with Florida Gulf Coast University.
Women’s basketball started well in November with an 85-75 win over Hillsborough Community College. Freshman guard Anthony Murphy ( right) is helping steer the surging men’s squad.
Coach Richter was fired up after the Bucs won the opener versus ASA College ( Miami). His team was hot in November.
Bucs baseball last season was led by Suwanee, Georgia, native and firstbaseman Ian Kimbrell ( left), New Zealander and star pitcher Courtney Gettins and Marta Fuentes (below), an Orlando infielder hitting .405 with 55 stolen bases. Seasonal play begins in January.