Signs informing pedestrians of the possible presence of alligators were erected at FGCU in 2000. / The News-Press file photo
PHILADELPHIA, PA - MARCH 24: Chase Fieler #20 of the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles reacts in the second half while taking on the San Diego State Aztecs during the third round of the 2013 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Wells Fargo Center on March 24, 2013 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images) / Getty Images
In this freshly minted rivalry, Gator fan Victoria Peery, left, hugs sister and FGCU fan Justyne Peery a little too hard Thursday inside JP Sports Collectables in Cape Coral. / Sarah Coward/The News-Press
Bags of pre-ordered FGCU merchandise line the floor behind the register waiting to be picked up by shoppers Thursday, March 28 at JP Sports Collectables in Cape Coral. / Sarah Coward/The News-Press
JP Sports Collectables, which usually sells10-1 Gators over FGCU merchandise, has seen that number turned into 50-1 FGCU over UF due to the Eagle's recent March Madness wins. / Sarah Coward/The News-Press
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The warning signs are posted on lake shores throughout FGCU’s campus.
“Alligators are present on university grounds,” they read.
Just last week the same was true of Gators — the orange-and-blue kind.
“Walking around campus you saw every other college: Miami, Florida, Florida State,” said Chase Fieler, a junior forward on the Eagles men’s basketball team. “Now you walk around and it’s almost strictly FGCU.”
Among the positives to come out of tonight’s historic Sweet 16 matchup between the No. 15-seeded Eagles and No. 3-seeded Florida is a deepened sense of community pride in FGCU.
FGCU students, once conflicted over cheering for the teams they grew up with or cheering for their school, have made up their minds. Folks who once leaned toward larger state universities are sporting Eagle gear. Homes formerly considered Gator-supportive, despite FGCU ties, are rethinking their priorities.
Take Fort Myers mayor Randy Henderson.
Henderson’s two older children, Laura Fraser and Marcus Henderson, graduated from the University of Florida, yielding close to a decade of orange-and-blue faith in the Henderson home. Alex Henderson, his youngest, is a junior at FGCU.
“Oh yeah, everyone had their Gator shirts back then, they came up for all the big games,” Fraser said, insisting she bleeds orange and blue. “Now it’s all about the trash talk. Lots of text messages, one liners, hashtags, things like that flying around.”
Most of those messages come from Alex. But the mayor has sent a few of his own.
“We still are a Gator home, you bet. But at least two of us will be cheering for the Eagles (tonight),” said Randy Henderson, a graduate of the even lesser-known Mars Hill College in Mars Hill, N.C., including himself in that count.
A year ago that number would have been zero. Alex Henderson earned his associate degree in Tallahassee. He admitted to wearing some of that garnet and gold during his early days as an Eagle. Rarely, of course.
“Maybe once or twice,” Alex Henderson said, “but it’s all green and blue now.”
At the four JP Sports stores in Lee and Charlotte counties, owner JP Peery has struggled to keep FGCU merchandise in stock. Tuesday he drove to Tampa to pick up 400 “Dunk City: Trashin’ Your Bracket” T-shirts.
Before the Eagles earned a spot in the tournament earlier this month, Peery said UF merchandise was by far his stores’ most popular, outselling FGCU 10 to 1. Since FGCU’s Sweet 16 berth the Eagles have outsold the Gators 50 to 1.
In the Peery household, the situation isn’t so simple. His oldest daughter Victoria is a lifelong Gator fan. His youngest Justyne is a sophomore at FGCU. The Eagles’ Cinderella run has only deepened his children’s ties to their respective programs.
“Do I think FGCU will win? No. Of course not,” 20-year-old Victoria Peery said. “It’s nice to see an underdog do well, but now it’s game time. I don’t go against my Gators.”
For JP Peery, who identified himself as a Gator fan, that loyalty is in question.
“I’m a believer now. I couldn’t change the channel,” said JP Peery, who is considering sewing together FGCU and UF shirts to keep his children happy tonight. “I think Fort Myers needs this. It’s nice to see this area making a name for itself.”
FGCU’s alligator warning signs end with, “It is against the university and state law to ... entice alligators in any way.”
Tell that to Andrew Piper.
A senior at the University of Florida, Piper is an athletic communications intern at FGCU. He’ll graduate from UF in May, but he’s followed every second of the Gators’ and Eagles’ runs closely.
Don’t tell his friends in Gainesville, but when asked who he wanted to win tonight Piper thought for a second, then smiled: “I want FGCU to win because it would just be a lot more fun,” he said.
“I love Florida and everything but to be here, working in this environment — I’ll be able to talk about this forever.”
The News-Press staff writers Dan DeLuca and Seth Soffian contributed to this article. Connect with this reporter: @ATometich (Twitter)