Florida Gators lacrosse maturing, making history and changing the game

Four years ago, Florida lacrosse coach Amanda O’Leary was traveling around the country recruiting the top young high school players to come play for the Gators.

Many of them didn’t even realize Florida had a team.

So O’Leary, a former two-time All-American lacrosse and field hockey player at Temple and 14-year head coach at Yale, had her work cut out for her.

With nothing but her experience and a blueprint for a $15 million lacrosse facility, she met with dozens of lacrosse players around the country who had yet to enter their junior year of high school.

The ones who committed to her and helped form the core of the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class were taking a big leap of faith.

“I was actually the second person to commit here,” sophomore Ashley Bruns told the St. Petersburg Times. “Nothing was built yet. It was just dirt. For me, personally, just hearing the vision, they made some great promises. They told us they wanted to be the best. And I wanted to be the best.”

Four years later, in the program’s second year of existence, Bruns and Florida are well on their way.

Continuing their historic run in 2011, the Gators topped Stanford 13-11 on Saturday to capture the school’s first-ever NCAA Tournament win and advance to the Elite 8.

“I’m really excited, obviously,” O’Leary said. “As such a new program to make it to the Elite 8, (I’m) just really proud of our team, our coaching staff, our support staff.”

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When sophomore Janine Hillier first arrived at Florida, she met a lot of blank stares when she told people she was on the Gators’ women’s lacrosse team.

The same was true for many of Florida’s freshman lacrosse players in 2010, the year the program began its first season.

As one of just two Division I women’s programs in the state, the Gators’ lacrosse team was simply an unknown group of girls who played on a nice field to most in Gainesville.

The sport, which has its roots up north, has slowly started to spread to the south. Still, it was completely foreign to many people when the Florida program began.

Unfazed, the fantastic freshman class got to work.

Florida got off to a hot start in 2010, winning three of its first four games. The team started to really raise some eyebrows around the national lacrosse community when the Gators scratched out their first conference win against No. 14 Penn State.

A few weeks later, the Gators stunned No. 20 Johns Hopkins in the quarterfinals of the American Lacrosse Conference Tournament with a convincing 14-3 win.

People started to notice.

Suddenly, the energetic, fun-loving group of girls that Gators fans had gathered to watch in their inaugural season were proving they could win against top-notch competition.

Now, in the program’s second year, there aren’t many out there who aren’t aware what the Florida lacrosse team is doing.

“Last year, we were a bunch of freshmen and we were all hyper and people were like, ‘Who are these crazy girls?’ ” sophomore Kitty Cullen told the New York Times. “But this year, they’ve come to accept us.”

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If there’s one thing that’s universally true about Gators fans, it’s that they love a winner.

Athletics director Jeremy Foley knew as much when he decided to start the lacrosse program, and he made sure he did everything in his power to ensure Florida would win and win early.

Bringing in O’Leary, who’s in the lacrosse Hall of Fame, was a start.

Building a state-of-the-art facility that few around the country can match helped.

Bringing in the nation’s top recruiting class in 2010 really got things going.

But nobody, not even Foley, envisioned the program would take off like it has in just its second year. The Gators have been ranked as high as second in the country, and were just a hair away from earning the nation’s top spot at the beginning of May.

“We had a desire to add a sport that competed for national championships,” Foley told the New York Times. “But even I didn’t see it happening this quickly.”

After dropping their season opener in overtime to UNC, the Gators ripped off 14 straight wins, knocking off then-No. 2 Northwestern, who has won five of the last six national championships, along the way.

The team came up just short of an ALC Tournament title in a rematch against Northwestern, falling 10-9 to finish the season with a 15-3 record and a perfect 5-0 conference record in the regular season.

After topping Stanford yesterday, Florida’s young team is beginning to see that their faith in O’Leary and Foley and their hard work to build the program from the ground up is paying off.

“Working hard in the offseason and in the summer, it’s just nice seeing that it pays off,” Cullen said. “Everything’s really paying off this season, and it’s just showing us how hard work really pays off.”

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Perhaps what’s most impressive about Florida’s spectacular season is just how far the team has come in one year, despite the fact the core of the team is made up of sophomores.

Time and time again, the team has risen to the occasion, looking more like a team of veteran players than a group who’s not even halfway through their college careers.

Saturday against Stanford was the perfect example.

With the game set to start at 1 p.m., it quickly became apparent the game would be delayed as driving rain drenched the field and lightning licked the skyline.

After a five-hour delay, the game finally got underway, and Florida showed no signs of nerves or adverse effects from sitting in the locker room for so long, as they quickly took a 4-0 lead just more than five minutes into the game.

“This was our first NCAA Tournament game,” O’Leary said. “One o’clock rolls around and it’s torrential downpours, lightning, thundering and I’m thinking ‘oh boy, this is our first one, these girls have never played in an NCAA Tournament game before.’ I was a little concerned with how they would handle sitting in the locker room for four to five hours, but obviously they came out of the locker room ready to go and ready to play. My fears were for naught.”

O’Leary’s watched her team grow up right before her eyes all year long.

She marvels at their ability to focus on the task at hand, and their even-keeled, but fun and relaxed, approach to the game.

Even when the pressure’s on and the team goes down, like they did in the second half against Stanford, she’s grown confident in her young squad’s ability to handle it.

“We’re doing a lot better at cutting away – if we get down, we get back into it,” she said. “When we lost the lead, they certainly could have put their heads down and said ‘that’s it.’ But they fought hard, they fought back, and I think that’s really a sign of maturity.”

In just two short years, O’Leary’s seen her team go from a talented group of incoming freshman recruits to a superb squad of sophomores.

She couldn’t be happier for them. They put their trust in her, and it’s paid off in a big way.

“We’ve matured quite a bit over the past season,” she said. “I’m just really proud of our effort. I’m just so thrilled for these guys.”

Still, despite their maturation, the lacrosse team hasn’t lost the fun-loving attitude that’s made them so easy to like and so fun to watch.

After Saturday’s game, Cullen was asked how much Hillier’s career-high-tying, four-goal performance meant.

Smiling from ear to ear, Cullen heaped praise on her teammate.

“It’s been so much fun just playing alongside her,” she said. “She’s a great, talented player. She’s athletic, she’s fast, and she’s able to get by her defenders. Now, having her finish is just helping us so much, especially going into the rest of the NCAA games.”

With a gleam in her eye, Cullen looked to her right at Hillier and said, “I’m proud of her.”

Grinning widely back at her teammate, Hillier shot back, “Thanks kid!”

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Florida’s quick rise to the top isn’t lost on the rest of the women’s collegiate lacrosse community, either.

Stanford coach Amy Bokker said after Saturday’s game that she’s thrilled with Florida’s success and what it means for the sport, particularly in the South, where the sport isn’t as popular right now.

“I think it’s awesome for our sport,” she said. “We’re really excited where the growth of the sport is. For Florida to do what they did today, I think it’s awesome for our sport.”

With other programs popping around the country – Michigan, San Diego State and USC are all starting in the near future – what Florida’s been able to do should encourage other programs and give them a blueprint for success.

Athletics directors who aren’t quite sold on the idea of adding a program can look to what Foley and the Gators have done and see just how possible it is to be instantly competitive at the top level of women’s lacrosse.

“I think that Florida’s set the precedent,” O’Leary said. “We are a program that is of the highest standards. We have such a tradition of excellence both athletically and academically. I know that there’s a lot of programs out there that look at what we’ve done, and they see the success that we’ve had, and they feel like if Florida can do it, we can do it.”

No matter how you look at it, Florida’s success this year has been simply remarkable.

Four years ago, some of the top high school girls in the country didn’t even know the Gators were starting a program.

Now, some of those same girls are favored in games against some of the top teams in the country.

“It’s a unique experience for us because we came into a lot of games early on in the season as the underdogs, but we’re not those underdogs anymore,” O’Leary told the St. Petersburg Times. “We’re the team that has the target on their backs.”

O’Leary and Foley couldn’t ask for anything more. That was their goal when they met four years ago and talked about their vision for the Florida program.

Four years later, that vision is already coming to fruition, as the No. 4 Gators get set to take on No. 5 Duke in the Elite 8 next Saturday at 3 p.m.

And O’Leary and the Gators aren’t finished yet. They want to win it all.

“We want to win, that’s what we do,” she told the Times. “That’s why these young ladies came to the University of Florida. They came to win championships.”