Eighteen years ago, Dennis Short was working at a private lacrosse camp during the summer near Orlando. On the way to camp every day the then-Ohio State assistant coach would pass Rollins College — a small Division II school in Winter Park, Fla. — and think what a perfect place for a lacrosse program.
Short knew nothing about Rollins, but just had an instinctual feeling.
Years passed, and Short eventually became the women’s head coach at Albany before leaving the school to move to Central Florida because he and his wife thought it was the best decision for their family. He began teaching at Ocoee High School — not far from Rollins — and coaching the boys’ lacrosse team in 2005.
Less than two years later, Short’s feeling about Rollins became a reality. The school became the first institution in the state of Florida to offer collegiate men’s and women’s lacrosse, and in March 2007, Short was hired to head up the women’s program.
With very limited time to recruit for the 2008 season, and no club team to glean from, Short gathered a group of student-athletes that sometimes competed with a player down during a condensed schedule.
But it did not take long for Short to get the program moving in the right direction. He revamped the team after the first year with a solid recruiting class, keeping only three players from the first season.
In 2009, playing mostly freshmen, the Tars went 12-3 and upset No. 10 Gannon. In 2010, Rollins strengthened the schedule a little, went through a sophomore slump, but still posted a 9-5 mark.
“Every team we’ve lost to in the last four years has been a top-10 team,” Short said. “Last year, we were 13-4 and really solidified our position. It wasn’t a fluke — it was a team that certainly could compete and be there with the best teams in the country.”
Senior Courtney Bianculli is one of the original members of the 2008 squad and has experienced the amazing transformation to a team that is currently 10-0 and ranked No. 4 nationally. She played the first year, and then after taking two years off from college, returned to the field last season.
“There have been huge changes since the beginning,” Bianculli said. “That first year was brutal and we didn’t even have enough people to field a team sometimes. Ever since then it has been another step in the right direction.”
“Now, it is seniors and juniors primarily on the field, and their experience has been a real difference,” Short said. “We’re really seeing the effects of the upperclassmen’s leadership.”
Bianculli attended high school in New York, but when her parents moved to Florida, Rollins seemed like a great fit for her.
“Long Island is a lacrosse place… it’s all about lacrosse,” Bianculli said. “When I came here in 2007, I had to explain the game to people. It has grown so much since then in the state. It’s phenomenal.”
The addition of Rollins women’s lacrosse began a trend in the Sunshine State. Florida and Jacksonville started Division I programs two years ago, while Florida Southern and St. Leo began playing Division II varsity this season. Stetson will add a Division I team in 2013.
But for the first few years, Rollins was definitely on an island. Short had to schedule several mini-tournaments and host almost a dozen neutral-site games in order to fill his own squad’s schedule.
Florida’s meteoric rise to a top-10 program in Division I, and Jacksonville’s solid start has increased exposure to the game in the state, but the addition of Florida Southern and St. Leo this year has really improved Short’s scheduling challenges.
“Plus, having them will create some good rivalries,” Short said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have women’s lacrosse in the Sunshine State Conference yet, but hopefully we will soon.”
Short hopes the trend continues in the Sunshine State, and is a little surprised more schools have not added programs yet.
“Not only is it a relatively inexpensive sport to add, but you get a quality student-athlete and we have a competitive advantage because we can play outdoors year-round,” Short said.
While the majority of Short’s players are from lacrosse hot spots like New England and Maryland, nine of the 25 student-athletes on the roster hail from Florida.
“I’ve tried to build the program off of Florida talent,” Short said. “There is a lot of talent at the Florida high school level and we’ve tried to keep the best kids in the state. Our starting goalie is from Central Florida. We normally start three girls from the state and two others that we could start.”
Sophomore goalkeeper Elyse DeLise is a local recruit from Orlando, but did not start playing the sport until she was a sophomore in high school and didn’t really know anything about it as a youngster. She loves the fact that Rollins, and the newer programs throughout the state, are giving more girls a chance to compete at a higher level.
“At the time, Rollins was becoming very successful,” DeLise said. “The word was they were going far, very fast and it was inspirational to me because I was a relatively new player.”
As the program attracts more top-notch recruits and earns a reputation as a serious contender, Rollins is looking to take a step to the next level this season as the Tars vie for their first NCAA postseason bid. However, with just six teams earning NCAA tournament berths, Short knows it will not be easy down the stretch.
“It’s a dogfight,” Short said. “It fosters great competition, but selecting three teams from each region is tough. Last year, we were the fourth seed. Hopefully, if we continue to have the success we’ve had this year, we’ll be the first seed. In the last two years, we’ve been right there.”