The Florida women’s lacrosse program celebrated a major milestone on March 9, but in retrospect, it seems a bit less major now.
When the Gators defeated Georgetown, 17-10, in a Wednesday night game at Donald R. Dizney Stadium, it was the first time in the program’s short history that Florida defeated a Top 10 team in the Intercollegiate Women’s Lacrosse Coaches Association’s Division I poll. Less than two weeks later after “beating ‘em,” however, Florida “joined ‘em,” coming in at No. 9 in the latest IWLCA poll in its second season of varsity play.
To head coach Amanda O’Leary, it’s a well-earned reward for a hard-working team.
“This group is just very, very hard-working,” O’Leary said. “They’ve set their goals very high, and with them, it’s all about achieving their goals. They want to achieve great things here, and you can really see it each and every day in practice. We talk about getting better and better each day, and not letting a day go by where we waste a day. We want to get better and better each day, and they do that. They do it on the practice field, they do it in the weight room, and they do it conditioning, so their work ethic across the board, I think, has really shown.”
Of course, with a team filled with players who committed to come to Florida and help build a new program from scratch, work ethic would figure to be a common trait.
“I think the recruiting is unique,” said O’Leary, who came to Florida from Yale, where she coached for 14 seasons. “You’re selling an opportunity to make your mark on an emerging program, so the whole recruiting process is a little different than when you’re at a more established program. These players came here to put the University of Florida lacrosse program on the map. I think a lot of them came here because they wanted to make their mark on the lacrosse world, and they think the University of Florida is a great place to do it.”
The Gators had a good example to learn from in attacker Caroline Cochran, who transferred to Florida after playing her freshman season at the University of Virginia. For O’Leary, the presence of a player who’d already competed at the highest levels collegiate lacrosse has to offer was an important example for the Gators.
“It was great having Caroline as a part of our team in the first season,” O’Leary said, “because of her having a year under her belt and understanding not only what it takes to be a Division I lacrosse player, but to be an elite player. That’s something that Caroline certainly understood coming from such a strong program at Virginia. She understood what it takes in the weight room, on the field and off the field in the conditioning aspect. That’s the biggest challenge to freshmen: how much time is spent in the weight room and on conditioning. To have her leadership there saying, ‘Yes, this is what it takes. All programs go through this,’ and then this year emerging as a more vocal leader, that was really great to see.”
“As soon as I came down here, I knew I’d want to come here,” Cochran said of her first visit to Gainesville. “We have the top facilities in the country, the coaches were really nice to me, and I knew that this would be the place for me.”
Still, all the work ethic in the world can only go so far when a team with 26 freshmen and sophmores is taking on established programs like Georgetown, Johns Hopkins, Vanderbilt and North Carolina. The Gators went 10-8 in their first season of play.
This season, however, Florida has taken a quantum leap forward. The Gators opened the season coming up short in overtime against No. 5 UNC, but proceeded to run off nine straight wins, including the victory over Georgetown, a 19-4 win over O’Leary’s alma mater, Temple, and a 16-11 win over preseason No. 5 Syracuse.
“You have an enormous amount of maturation,” O’Leary said of her team’s change in the last year, “emotionally and physically. They’re bigger, they’re stronger, they’re faster, and mentally, I think they have a strong mindset of what they want their goals to be and how to achieve them.”
The next goals for the Gators lie in the American Lacrosse Conference. Florida starts conference play on Saturday against Ohio State, with Penn State, Johns Hopkins, No. 2 Northwestern and No. 15 Vanderbilt not far behind. Competing in the ALC is a tall order, but the Gators feel that they’re up to it.
“I think the stakes are higher now,” said freshman midfielder Krista Grabher, one of two players on the team from Florida, “because we know that we can beat these teams, and we belong in this conference. We’re going to be more prepared for these games. I’m really excited, because hopefully, it’s going to take us further in the tournament.”
For Grabher, who had considered heading north to play for an established team, the opportunity to stay in Florida and compete at the Division I level was a no-brainer, and now, the decision is paying off.
“I was looking at a lot of different schools up north,” Grabher said, “but I was afraid of the weather. This is a new team, and Mandy promised great success and hard work, and that’s what I was looking for. I’m enjoying it.”
And, with Florida in the Top 10 in the program’s second year, there’s no telling how far the Gators will go.
“To beat a top 10 team and an established program was such an accomplishment,” Cochran said, “and now that we are a top 10 team, it’s a great feeling. It’s just our second year, so that in itself is amazing or us.”