The No. 6 Florida lacrosse team won its 13th straight game Thursday night in grand fashion.
The Gators upset the visiting No. 2-ranked Northwestern Wildcats 13-11 to clinch the top seed in the American Lacrosse Conference tournament and at least a share of the regular season title.
The Wildcats have been in the national championship game the past six years, winning five-consecutive titles before losing to Maryland in the 2010 championship game. In the Gators’ inaugural season last year, Florida was overwhelmed by Northwestern 19-5 in Evanston, Ill.
Florida sophomore midfielder Kitty Cullen remembers that game all too well, and she sees how far her and her team has come since that crushing defeat.
“Last year we were down 14-0 at the half and now we’ve beat them it just really shows how much we’ve matured in the last year,” Cullen said.
Thursday’s game started off like so many of Florida’s games this year, with the Gators (13-1, 4-0 ALC) striking quickly and building a 5-1 lead early on with goals from Kitty Cullen, Ashley Bruns, and Caroline Chesterman.
By the end of the first half, the Gators had a commanding 9-4 lead over the Wildcats.
However, the second half has been trouble for Florida this season, and those struggles continued into this game.
Northwestern (12-1, 2-1 ALC) came out of the locker room on fire, scoring three straight goals to cut the UF lead to 9-7.
It was at this point that the crowd of 1,518 at Donald R. Dizney Stadium really got behind the team, and they were in for a good show over the next 20 minutes.
After both teams traded points with free position shots, the Wildcats made their second run cutting UF’s lead to 12-11 with 6:37 remaining.
Florida head coach Amanda O’Leary said her team’s experience and belief in one another allowed them to play through their mistakes without panicking.
“We weren’t pressing the panic button,” O’Leary said. “You know we’ve gotten into these situations before, where we put up big leads and teams come back on us, so it wasn’t anything like that. What I’m most impressed with this team is we made some bad decisions down the stretch with our shots, but I heard three people say ‘I got your back don’t worry about it.’”
The Gators overall did a good job of defending, but Northwestern’s star duo of Erin Fitzgerald and Shannon Smith were able to draw contact near the goal many times setting up free position shots which they converted.
Another area the Gators struggled in was draws. Florida rotated four players at the spot, but the Wildcats consistently won the draw and were able to start their second half runs off many of these possessions.
O’Leary then went to freshman Kelsey Dlugos who stayed in on draws for the rest of the game. O’Leary acknowledged the trouble spot and explained how she came to her decision for who to place their late in the game.
“She’s a draw specialist and we put her in and she did what she needed to do,” O’Leary said. “She came up with some big draws and sort of disrupted enough of the draws where at least we had a chance when the ball was on the ground so give a lot of credit to her for coming in to such a huge game as a freshman and contributing in a really amazing way.”
Two players came to the rescue with the game still in doubt. The first major play was a score from Kitty Cullen with 5:35 remaining that pushed the UF lead to 13-11. It was Cullen’s sixth goal of the game and it came at a crucial moment.
The game was still far from over however, as the Wildcats stole the ball with over a minute left in the game, and were heading towards the goal. A foul brought a free position shot that would have once again made it a one-score game.
That’s when Florida goalkeeper Mikey Meagher made one of the biggest plays of her career.
She blocked both the free position shot and a second shot Northwestern tried on the rebound in a span of just a few seconds.
The play sealed the win for the Gators, their biggest in the two-year history of the program.
Meagher reflected on the moment and how she kept her composure during the dramatic last few minutes of the game.
“We were trying to possess the ball and you know, turnovers are going to happen and my team had my back so many times tonight that I just kind of collected myself and said ‘Alright you’re going to do this for them’, and I was able to come out with the save,” Meagher said.
With such a big win in books, O’Leary was asked to compare this team to the great ones she coached at Yale. Her answer indicated that she has a special affinity for this Gators team and what they represent.
“I have coached some great players at Yale and some great teams, but overall from top to bottom, this team is the most talented group I have ever coached,” O’Leary said.
The Gators have now clinched a share of the ALC championship, but they still have two games left on the schedule before the tournaments begin.
The first test will come on the road this Sunday at No. 17 Vanderbilt. O’Leary, although extremely satisfied with the win, realizes there is still work left to be done for the Gators.
“We’ll savor it for tonight, but we have Vanderbilt on Sunday, we can’t lose to Vanderbilt so we need to focus, savor the victory, be happy and then tomorrow get back to work,” O’Leary said.
Gator Country reporter Daniel Jennings can be reached at Daniel@gatorcountry.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/DJenningsGC