Part III of David Parker’s series finishes up the State of the Program analysis for the “lower” half of the women’s programs.
#9 Women’s Cross Country
Current Temperature: Reaching Steady Boil. After eight years of mediocrity, by Gators standards, the program has strung together four very strong seasons that could play into the best period in team history.
SEC Index: Hot. Two straight conference titles in the middle of four straight top-three conference finishes will do that. The consecutive league crowns are bookended by a second place finish in 2008 and a third last year. That matches, as a mirror image, the previous best four year stint in program annals from 1995 to 1998. Last year the Gators notched their eighth straight top-five finish in the league, just two shy of the program record of 10 from 1992 to 2001.
Fox & Hounds: Florida is the fast fox in the field right now with their two titles in the last three years, especially since the team to break their streak was Vanderbilt. The Commodores have won only a handful of conference crowns in its history in any sport. But those two SEC titles only draw the Gators into a tie with Tennessee for second-most in the conference, with five. The program everyone is chasing in women’s cross country is Arkansas. The Hogs have 13 SEC titles, including three straight, directly preceding Florida’s double-dip.
National Index: Very Mild. At least by Florida standards it is. However, by UF women’s cross country historical standards, the program is at a peak in national performance. Their seventh place finish in 2009 equals the highest finish in program history (first done in 1981), and prior to last year, the squad had competed and placed in the top 30 for the last five years running. Previous to 2006, the program only did this 6 times total.
Fox & Hounds: Villanova has dominated this sport on a national level. Having won two straight titles, their nine championships are nearly double that of the nearest competitor. Other than ‘Nova, only Stanford (five) and BYU (four) have won more than two titles.
Outlook: Strong. If the program maintains or exceeds its current performance levels, the team’s current run is shaping up to equal or surpass the best period in school history in SEC competition, and it has already set a new standard for national finishes.
#8 Women’s Indoor Track & Field
Current Temperature: Big Spike. It’s a tough temperature to take because the squad just won the SEC title in 2012, making it two of the last three. These titles were only the program’s sixth and seventh SEC crowns in program history, respectively. However, the titles bookended a fifth-place finish and followed what is arguably the worst stretch of season performances since they started running indoors at Florida. From 2005 to 2009, UF logged five straight finishes outside the top-three in the SEC; since opening the sport in 1983, the squad had only suffered consecutive seasons outside the SEC top-3 twice (’88-’89 and ’94-’95-’96).
SEC Index: Unstable. That’s what the index reads when you win two SEC titles amidst a seven year stretch that would otherwise be the black mark in the program’s SEC history. The thinking here is that in the last three years, the fifth place finish in 2011 was the exception and the conference titles in 2010 and 2012 were the rule. Mike Holloway is one of the best coaches in the country in any sport and though the women’s side has trailed the men’s, he is building them into an elite program as well.
Fox & Hounds: When the Gators run, they aren’t chasing hounds or foxes, but Tigers. LSU has won 12 SEC titles in women’s ITF, and while Florida is second, they only have one more than half their total with seven conference crowns. The Vols are next behind Florida with four titles, but have won three of them in the last eight years.
National Index: Occasional Noise-Makers. As in the SEC, the 2010 season was an anomaly in the last seven years with the women scoring zero points at the NCAA meet. It was the first time in 18 years that they failed to place with points in the championships, and only the second time since the NCAA sanctioned the sport in 1983. Previous to 2006, they notched four straight national top-three finishes, including three straight runner-up spots. With two SEC titles in that span, it rivals the 1990-1993 stretch as the best in program history which included two SEC titles, four straight top-five national finishes and the program’s only national championship.
Fox & Hounds: Everyone is chasing the Ducks of Oregon right now, and their three straight national crowns. However, there has not been a clearly dominant program over the last 14 years. LSU has won by far the most titles with 11, but eight of them came pre-1998.
Outlook: This is one of the more difficult teams to project, certainly the most puzzling on the women’s side. However, given the overall quality of the coaching and the surge in performance of all men’s & women’s track & field programs in Gainesville, as well as the undeniable heat of two SEC titles in the last three years, the thought here is that the team will normalize to the upper tier of the SEC in the next few years rather than return to the rut they dug before the 2010 title. The runners and jumpers and throwers will begin to again make their presence more notable in the national meet.
#7 Women’s Lacrosse
Current Temperature: Red Hot, Doc! It burns to the touch. How else would you describe a program that has made this sort of three year meteoric rise?
ALC Index: Elite. It’s difficult to call a third-year program “elite,” especially with some of the historic programs in the American Lacrosse Conference, but Florida has done just that. They have immediately made
themselves a candidate for premier program in the league. Of course, they will need to continue to prove this over several years, but given what we have seen thus far – winning the conference title outright two years in a row to cap their first trio of seasons in existence – there’s no reason to doubt they will.
Fox & Hounds: Right now, everyone is chasing Florida and Northwestern. Florida is the two-time reigning champ while Northwestern won the league tourney the first year UF won the regular season title. Of course, the Wildcats have won the national title both of the last two years. It should be very fun to watch this rivalry develop over the next several years on a conference and national level—if they can find some honest people to officiate the NCAA tournament games, of course.
National Index: Powerhouse. Two years ago, the program dropped its last regular season game in what came to be seen as an ultimate trap situation to one of their few opponents not highly ranked in the nation. At that point, the Gators had risen to No. 2 in the polls, and had they not lost, they likely would have taken over the No. 1-ranking in the final regular season poll, as the top team lost the same week. Of course, last year they blew right past that final obstacle and enjoyed their first ever stint as the No. 1 team in the nation, in only their third season in existence. They ultimately finished fourth and third, respectively, in the final IWLCA Coach’s polls, an amazing feat for any Year Three program in any sport. They reached these heights against one of the five toughest schedules in the country each year. All of that and they placed 21 players on the league’s Academic Honor Roll in 2012.
Fox & Hounds: Northwestern and Maryland have set the pace in this sport since the NCAA started holding a national championship tournament in 1982. The Terps have 10 titles, three more than the ‘Cats, but five of Northwestern’s seven championships were consecutive and all seven have come in the last eight years, with Maryland breaking the streak in 2011.
Outlook: Sky’s the Limit. They’re already in the high altitudes. They were one corrupt official’s criminal ruling away from advancing to the title game last year to face a team they had already beaten twice – once during the season and once during the conference tournament – and against whom they obviously matched up extremely well. They were that close to winning the national title in just their third season, beating the women’s soccer program to the natty punch by one year. This program may deserve to be in the upper tier of UF women’s sports, but with only three years of performance to measure, it is impossible to know if the success of the 2011 and 2012 seasons will be the program’s natural level or just catching lightning in a bottle fresh out of the gate. The smart money however is on a sustained period of elite play in the ALC and in the NCAA tournament.
So there you have, the State of the Program for the first three women’s sports in Florida athletics. In Part IV, I’ll break down the top six women’s sports and gauge where they stand, how they match up to historical benchmarks and where they’re headed.