How ‘bout them Owls!

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Kennesaw State bursting with pride after going from nearly worst to the Big Dance

Bethany Fortson was still hoarse days after joining a sea of fellow students chanting inside Kennesaw State University’s packed Convocation Center last weekend: “You don’t want to go to war with the Owls! With the Owls!”

Fortson watched as the men’s basketball team made history with its thrilling 67-66 victory over Liberty University in the Atlantic Sun Conference championship. The win earned KSU its first NCAA Tournament berth and so much more. The suburban research university is now enjoying the national spotlight, extensive news media attention and a big boost in school pride among its more than 40,000 students.

“There is that new sense of pride and ‘This is where I am from and this is what we are doing,’” said Fortson of Athens, who serves as KSU’s Student Government Association president. “They are going to have to build a bigger gym.”

ExploreKennesaw State will play Xavier in NCAA Tournament

Credit: Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

KSU pulled off a remarkable turnaround, going from 1-28 in 2019-2020 to 26-8 this season. Fourth-year head coach Amir Abdur-Rahim, who was named ASUN coach of the year, is emphasizing the importance of his team’s “emotional maturity” in the days ahead. On Sunday, the Owls will learn who they will face in the first round of the tournament, where they will almost certainly be considered underdogs.

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“Our emotional maturity is going to have to be at an all-time high next week in order to win a game. And once you win that first game, now anything can happen,” Abdur-Rahim told reporters moments before his team’s practice Wednesday. “That is the goal — just focusing on us, focusing on that first game. And after that we are going to let the chips fall where they may.”

Credit: Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

Spencer Rodgers, a KSU starting guard who graduated from Mountain View High School in Lawrenceville, said people doubted his team’s ability to pull off a winning season. A preseason coaches’ poll predicted the Owls would finish eighth in the ASUN. Rodgers was gratified fans asked him to sign their shirts and posters after last weekend’s victory over Liberty.

“The community has somebody to cheer for,” he said. “Little kids have somebody to look up to, so that’s just everything to us.”

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Cameron Paulk, a KSU track athlete from Acworth who also serves as the university’s director of student life, has been struck by what he has observed on campus recently.

“Just seeing kids walk from the Green to the Convocation Center, like in flocks, right before the game was something that was extraordinarily different than before,” he said. “It was just intense. The crowds were electric.”

KSU President Kathy Schwaig, who excitedly paced in the Convocation Center while watching last weekend’s match, was “in awe of what was happening and the energy, the excitement. It was really like nothing else that I had seen on this campus in the athletic space.” She pointed to the broader potential for KSU.

“Certainly, we would expect that maybe our applications will go up and we will have some donors and some sponsors that will take another look,” she said. “All of that is obviously wonderful. But for me it is about KSU being on a national stage.”

Credit: Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

Meanwhile, the team’s Cinderella Story is giving long-suffering KSU fans something to cheer about. Among them is Caric Martin, a banking industry executive from Powder Springs who graduated from what was then known as Kennesaw Junior College in 1976. A season ticketholder with courtside seats, Martin’s family endowed a scholarship dedicated to KSU men’s basketball.

“Let me just say that I am alternating between jumping up and down and being excited like a 10-year-old boy and crying like a sentimental old man that I am,” Martin said, adding the team’s success reminds him of his late father, who taught economics at Kennesaw Junior College. “I have a personal motto: Awareness creates value. And this has created a lot of awareness for the school.”

AJC reporter Jeremy Redmon also teaches journalism at Kennesaw State University and Madgie Robinson and Monaé Templier of Fresh Take Georgia, a nonprofit digital news service at the Center for Sustainable Journalism at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, are among his students. Fresh Take Georgia is one of the AJC’s news partners. Nicole Williams, the AJC’s Senior Manager of Partnerships, can be reached at