All Nadia Hoekstra knew about Boston College in December 2004 was that the Eagles' football team had defeated her beloved North Carolina Tar Heels in a bowl game. But the victory landed the Northern school on her radar, and for the next two years the Chapel Hill, N.C., native warmed to BC as it battled its new Atlantic Coast Conference rivals on the gridiron and the hardwood.
When it came time to choose a college, the ACC's newest member won out.
"I'm a huge basketball fan, so the ACC was definitely a major factor in my choosing BC," she said. "At first, it was really all I knew. But the more I learned, the more I liked it."
Boston College is a northern outpost far from the heart of ACC country, but since joining the league two years ago the private Jesuit university has seen applications from high school students in the league's six states to the south surge 30 percent. Applications from South Carolina have doubled, increased nearly 50 percent in Virginia, and climbed by one-third in North Carolina and Georgia.
Boston College officials credit joining the ACC, the 12-team sports league that binds states from Florida to Maryland with a brand of fanaticism that rivals Red Sox fans in New England, for elevating the college's presence in a fast-growing region and carving out a niche in the Southern consciousness.
"We're in the hunt, as they say in the South," said Robert Lay, BC's dean for enrollment management. He said the ACC exposure has transformed the college's image in the region as a "small school nestled comfortably up in Boston" to one that can hold its own with athletic powerhouses at large state universities.
In addition to BC, the league consists of Clemson, Duke, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Maryland, Miami, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Wake Forest.
BC officials note that the school has drawn students from across the country for roughly two decades and that students ultimately base college decisions far more on scholastic reputation than athletic success. Many high school students are particularly drawn to Boston College's Catholic identity.
But nationally televised clashes with UNC, Duke, Georgia Tech, and Virginia have brought the college into the living rooms of a largely untapped region of students. Boosting its profile, BC has excelled in the new league, going to back-to-back bowl games in football and earning trips to the NCAA basketball tournament the past two years.
"It's the cheapest advertising you can have," said John Mahoney, director of undergraduate admissions. "But you have to back it up with academic quality."
BC joined the ACC because it believed the conference was a better academic and athletic match than the Big East. It also anticipated the move would increase its geographical diversity, but it has been surprised at how quickly interest has risen.
The spike in applications has not translated into significantly increased enrollment from students in the ACC states to the south. Overall, about 30 percent of accepted applicants enroll in Boston College, but among accepted students from ACC states that yield is 21 percent.
"You don't hear as many 'Y'alls as we'd like," said Jack Dunn, a Boston College spokesman. "At least not yet."
Admissions officers said the college has always struggled to coax Southern students northward, away from their state flagship universities they can attend at a fraction of the cost of a private university.
"When you're going up against Chapel Hill or UVA, the price differential is huge," Mahoney said. "But we're getting on the radar." BC costs about $46,000 per year for tuition, fees, room, and board; in-state students at UNC and Virginia pay about $13,000 and 16,000, respectively.
At 35th in US News & World Report's national college ratings, BC trails four other ACC schools: Duke (8th), Virginia (23d), North Carolina (28th), and Wake Forest (30th) and is tied with Georgia Tech. Its acceptance rate, 29 percent of all applicants, and median SAT scores trail only Duke's.
Paul Gallagher, assistant principal of Riverview High School in Sarasota, Fla., said Boston College's increased visibility has caught the eye of many students.
"It's automatic admissions marketing, just by coming down here and playing the games," said Gallagher, a Boston native and Northeastern University graduate. "It already had the academic reputation, and now their neighbor knows what BC is because they see them on TV all the time."
John Swofford, the ACC commissioner, said BC has made a lasting imprint during its short time in the league.
"Through their involvement in the conference, BC has a much larger footprint in this part of the country than it ever did before," said Swofford, a North Carolina resident and graduate of University of North Carolina.
Successful sports teams can impact college admissions, a phenomenon often dubbed the "Flutie effect" for the sharp rise in applications Boston College saw following Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie's senior season in 1984. George Mason, the Virginia school that won national acclaim for reaching the Final Four in 2006, saw a 24 percent spike in applications this year, which it largely credits to the basketball team.
That's exactly how it works, said Michael Lovagliaa University of Iowa sociologist who has studied the topic.
"There's a halo effect," he said. "You think about them, so you assume the school must be good. But you may have thought about them only because they were beating your favorite team."
Sam Hay came home from the hospital 20 years ago wrapped in a Carolina-blue blanket, and grew up a Tar Heel through and through. His Charlotte, N.C., prep school was a pipeline to UNC, just two-and-a-half hours down the road in Chapel Hill.
But the Boston area held a special allure, and Hay began to consider forsaking Southern comforts to spend his college years in the cold, curious north. Maybe Boston doesn't have chicken biscuits or sweet tea, but it has college basketball straight from Tobacco Road.
"When they joined the ACC, that was a strong pull for me. I knew I'd get to see all the teams I watched growing up," said Hay, a sophomore who decided to apply to BC in 2005, the school's first year in the league. "You get to go away to school but keep that connection."