Gator Country’s Max Mattern sat down with Gators lacrosse coach Amanda O’Leary, who left an established program at Yale to begin a new one at Florida nearly three years ago. In only the program’s second season last spring, O’Leary guided the Gators to an Elite Eight appearance in the ALC tournament, which will be hosted this year in Gainesville from May 3-5.
GATOR COUNTRY: Where you from and what was your hometown like?
AMANDA O’LEARY: I’m from the suburbs of Philadelphia, a really small town called Royersford, Pennsylvania. It was kind of like cow country growing up (laughing).
GC: When was the first time you ever picked up a lacrosse stick?
O’LEARY: I probably started playing lacrosse when I was seven I guess. In those times, like 100 years ago, we typically played field hockey, basketball and lacrosse. They were the three sports that girls would play. We had a middle school program and a high school program that was pretty competitive, so I was able to play for a really long time.
GC: When did you realize you wanted to coach lacrosse?
O’LEARY: I think I realized I wanted to coach lacrosse in my senior year of college. I was an exercise-physiology major and the idea of doing stress tests for the rest of my life wasn’t really that appealing. Coaching seemed like a much more fun occupation. It was something I had a passion for. I really enjoyed playing, so the opportunity to continue what I loved to do just made sense.
GC: Where did you play college lacrosse and what position?
O’LEARY: I played at Temple University, in the middle of Philadelphia, and I played center in the midfield.
GC: Now that you have experienced playing both, do you enjoy playing or coaching lacrosse more?
O’LEARY: I feel like they’re equal. I think they are just different experiences. When you are player you sort of have all the control, it’s all in your hands, and I like that. I like being able to play and I enjoy my teammates and that whole team atmosphere. I think as a coach it’s sort of a different … It’s just a different feel. I think there are times I wish I was out there again and I can do it myself, but at this point coaching satisfies a different part of what your passion is and what you want to do in lacrosse. For me, coaching is exciting because you get to meet a whole lot of people in recruiting and you have your team. You have an opportunity to watch these players grow — not only on, but off the field — and watch them mature. I think it’s a lot of fun and very cool.
GC: After coaching at Yale for 14 years, what made you want to leave, or was it just the opportunity?
O’LEARY: I think it was the opportunity to be able to compete at the highest level. I had a great experience at Yale. I wouldn’t trade it in for anything, but the level of support and the ability to compete at the level that I wanted to coach at — well, Florida gives you that opportunity. They are going to provide you with everything you need to succeed and the onus is on you the coach to make that happen, and I appreciate that. As a coach, that’s the perfect opportunity that you could possibly have because obviously we have all the fiscal resources. Our student athletes are obviously treated really well. We have a great facility to call home, so all of the opportunities are afforded to our coaching staff and our student athletes. The onus is on us to make it work.
GC: Why choose an inaugural program like UF at the time instead of one that was already established? Did you have any doubts?
O’LEARY: I think you always have doubts. You’re always worried like are you going to be able to recruit kids to come to your school when you don’t have anything to show them. We had nothing. We had no facility. We just talked about this dream and you kind of had to sell the sports that already here and the successes of those programs. Across the board, the women’s athletics here at Florida were the best of the best, so you kind of hope that you can follow suit. We got really lucky with our inaugural class. I think they are a tremendous group of players and people. It worked out, but you always have doubts early on. You are hoping that you are going to be able to be successful and be successful early on. You only get one shot at a first impression. You want to be able to put your best possible team on the field your first year, and I think we were able to do that.
GC: Be honest when you say this, did the weather play in as a factor while choosing Florida?
O’LEARY: Heck yeah (laughing)! Have you ever lived in Connecticut? I had an industrial snow blower, so that was the first thing I got rid of. After spending 14 years in Connecticut, it’s a beautiful state and we lived near the water. It was absolutely gorgeous, but I had had enough of my fill of snow, sleet, rain and ice. Certainly, the weather played a part.
GC: How do you think the Gator fans compare to some of the fans up north, since they aren’t aware of all the rules of the game?
O’LEARY: I think our fans are so incredibly unique because they will come out and support your team whether they know anything about it or not. They are just an incredibly supportive group. They are starting to learn the rules, and they are starting to become more informed, but that’s not important. The fact that they are in the stands and cheering loudly and they’re enthusiastic, it makes a huge difference because that enthusiasm and that level of excitement creates … I can’t think of the word … Energy! It permeates on to the field, to our players, to our coaching staff and you can’t ask for more than that from any fan base. Hopefully, that fan base will continue to grow and expand, but right now, I think our fans are just phenomenal and the best in the country, no doubt.
GC: Is there any player on the team that reminds you of yourself while you played in college?
O’LEARY: No, not really. I’d like to think that every player is unique in their own way. I think we certainly run the gambit of uniqueness, if that’s even a word. Without going into any more detail, we are just a unique group.
GC: Having players from many different states, how do you make them see each other as more of a family rather than just teammates?
O’LEARY: I think they just spend so much time together. I think it doesn’t matter where they’re from or what they’re background is like because this is their family. Not only do our student athletes envelop that whole attitude but our parents of our players. So if someone is coming in and they need a place to stay, they always know the opportunity is there to stay with a family. It is really just a great family environment that we have down here, and I feel like we are really lucky to have that. A lot of players are coming from really far places and their parents can’t typically drive here, so when they are sick it’s often a little tough but there’s always a parent or two that’s around so it really does make for a great family environment.
GC: So I’ve heard that you have two children, could you tell me a little about them?
O’LEARY: Madison, she is 16 and she goes to Oak Hall School. She plays volleyball, basketball, and lacrosse. Her aspirations academically are to attend an Ivy League institution. My son Ryan is 11. He is in fifth grade at Oak Hall. He enjoys athletics, and he is a huge Gator fan. He is a good kid. He plays football, basketball, and lacrosse.
I’ve been told that you bring your dog to practice, what’s his name?
O’LEARY: My dog’s name is Boomer. He is a yellow lab mixed with some sort of hybrid Great Dane. He is a huge dog, but that’s why he can’t always come to practice. We are very dog friendly here. All the dogs that everybody brings have been known to get together at doggy daycare here on the soccer fields, not the lacrosse fields (laughing). We don’t want to ruin our lacrosse fields, I’m kidding I’m kidding (laughing). I would just say that we are dog friendly here.
GC: What’s one of you hobbies when you’re not practicing or coaching?
O’LEARY: Reading and going to watch my kids play in whatever sporting event that they are competing in.
GC: What does it mean to you to be a Florida Gator?