Florida lacrosse turning Gainesville back into Titletown

On a chilly, partly cloudy day at the beginning of May in 2010, then-freshman attacker Caroline Chesterman walked off the field with a sinking feeling.

She had scored one of Florida’s five road goals against then-No. 2 Northwestern, but it wasn’t enough to keep the Wildcats from crushing the Gators 19-5 in the program’s worst loss of its inaugural season.

“I don’t think we scored a goal at half. It was bad. It was bad,” she said Saturday afternoon, recalling the 14-0 halftime deficit the team faced that day, as the corners of her mouth turned up into a wide smile.

Chesterman’s No. 3 Florida team had just upended No. 1 Northwestern for the second time this season and the third time in the last four meetings, this time securing the school’s first-ever American Lacrosse Conference Tournament championship in the process.

Almost as thoroughly as Northwestern had dismantled Florida in the first-ever series meeting, the Gators imposed their will on the Wildcats in a dominant 14-7 win in Saturday’s tournament final.

The memories of that painful blowout loss two years ago made this one that much sweeter.

Chesterman and the Gators have grown up with coach Amanda O’Leary. No longer are they the new kids on the block. Now they’re one of the elite teams in women’s college lacrosse – one opposing teams would rather not see on their schedule.

“Coming in as a freshman, Amanda was like ‘Yeah, one day we’re going to be a really good team,’” Chesterman said. “Then last year we were like “Oh my God, after beating Northwestern, we can compete with the best team in the country.’”

One year removed from the program’s first-ever ALC regular-season title, an appearance in the ALC Tournament championship and a run to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament, Florida is ascending to even greater heights.

The Gators could very well take over women’s lacrosse’s No. 1 ranking and the top seed in the 2012 NCAA Tournament after a statement win over the Wildcats.

The transformation into a college lacrosse powerhouse has been a quick one.

“We were the underdogs last year, then coming out this year, everyone realized, alright, they can compete, they can play,” Chesterman said. “This year, we’re really working hard day in and day out. Every game we try to get better. It’s just a good feeling coming out with a win today.”

Florida poured money, time and resources into its lacrosse program from the outset. If the results so far are any indication, that’s a pretty good strategy.

Athletics director Jeremy Foley and school president Bernie Machen were in the stands to take in part of Florida’s ALC Tournament title on Saturday, and O’Leary attributes much of the team’s success to the investment Foley and others have made.

“To look up in the stands today and see our athletic director cheering us on, it starts from the very top,” O’Leary said. “Today, just amazing, amazing support from the community. It just made me really proud to be a Florida Gator.”

There’s really only one more jump for the team to make after winning two of the three titles it competes for every year.

That’s a national championship, which Florida earned an automatic bid to compete for with its win over Northwestern. The Gators will likely host their first two games in the NCAA Tournament, meaning the team will vie for a Final Four berth in front of the Florida faithful.

O’Leary couldn’t say enough about what that means for the Gators after Saturday’s historic win.

“I’d like to thank all the fans,” she gushed. “Last night we had over 1,000 fans here. It was just such an amazing momentum-builder for us to walk out onto that field and see all of our fans out there.”

Even Northwestern, the premier women’s lacrosse program for the past decade, recognized the amazing job O’Leary has done with the program.

Wildcats coach Kelly Amonte Hiller is quite familiar with O’Leary after playing for Maryland for two years while the current Florida head coach was on staff there as an assistant coach, and she spoke glowingly of O’Leary in defeat.

“Any time you’re putting this kind of support behind something, it definitely makes a difference,” she said. “[Amanda] had a couple years to jump-start her recruiting, and she is a top, top-notch coach.

“She coached me in college, so I really know what she brings to the table coaching-wise. She does a great job at maximizing her personnel and getting the most out of them. She’s a great recruiter, as well. She gets great personnel to work with.”

But as far as Florida has come in just three years time, the goal the Gators set out to reach at the beginning of the year still looms in the distance.

Florida is shooting for its first national title in program history, and it’ll take four more wins to get there.

Chesterman knows it.

“Today was a great win, but like we always say ‘It’s great, enjoy the moment right now, but then we got to move on with it,’” she said.

As the last rays of the warm summer-like sun flitter over the Gainesville horizon tonight, Chesterman and the Gators can rest much better than they did after that cool afternoon two years ago in Evanstown, Ill.

Tonight they sleep in Titletown.