Gators build powerhouse from scratch
Florida builds first DI program in the Sunshine State
When junior midfielder Brittany Dashiell came on her recruiting trip to the Florida four years ago, there wasn't much that women's lacrosse head coach Amanda O'Leary could use to lure the high school All-American from Bel Air, Md., to Gainesville. Not much other than a dream.
But with a little vision, and a lot of hard work, the Gators have proven that dreams can come true -- very quickly. Florida will be making its first appearance in the NCAA Division I Women's Lacrosse Championship semifinals this weekend in only the program's third year of existence.
Four years ago, there was no facility or tradition, or even a team. There was only a plan to build a women's lacrosse program that would begin playing in 2010.
"We had nothing to show them," O'Leary said. "We had no stadium, no tradition. These young women are trailblazers. They committed to a dream."
"We didn't have much to go by," Dashiell said. "But I had so much confidence in Mandy (O'Leary) as a coach and Athletics Director Jeremy Foley after hearing how they planned to build a program. Florida has a great athletics program, so I knew a lacrosse program would progress rapidly and become something great."
Starting any athletics program from scratch at the college level is no easy feat, especially when the program is the first of its kind at the Division I level in the state. The Sunshine State is not known as a hotbed of women's lacrosse like the Northern or Mid-Atlantic States such as New York or Maryland, and the vast majority of players on the Florida roster are from out of state.
"It is great there is a program here now … it is great weather and a great atmosphere and the fan base is amazing," Dashiell said. "It is fun to start something new and see how much it has progressed."
Dashiell -- one of the members of the Gators' inaugural recruiting class -- is one of the key reasons for Florida's meteoric rise as a national contender in the sport. She leads the team with 25 assists and ranks third on the team with 65 points for the No. 1 team in nation.
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But Dashiell is more than just an offensive threat. She is everywhere on the field, taking care of the little things … the details. She is also tied for the team lead with 17 caused turnovers and has collected 31 ground balls and 43 draw controls.
"It has been so much fun watching her grow over the last three years," junior attack Kitty Cullen said. "She's had such an outstanding season. She's the type player who goes down on the defensive end and makes big stops, and then on the draw so we get possession, and then she can come down and score really well. She's all-around an unbelievable player and I'm so happy to be playing on her side."
Cullen is one of Dashiell's best friends and roommates, and was also a high school star in Maryland.
"She's one of the players that committed to Florida before I did, and I knew she was a great player," Cullen said. "I played against her in high school and knew I would want to be a part of her team."
Two weeks ago, Dashiell was named one of five Tewaaraton Award finalists, the first UF player to accomplish the feat. The award is given annually to the best women's lacrosse player in the nation. While she is focused on her team's success, she is a little dumbstruck by the honor.
"It's incredible," Dashiell said. "I never thought this would happen."
The Gators will face Syracuse in the NCAA semifinals on May 25 in Stony Brook, N.Y. The Orange handed Florida its last loss of the season - one of only two this year - in a double-overtime contest on March 3.
"We're really excited to get a second chance to play them," Dashiell said. "It was a tough loss for us. The last game was very physical … they're a really tough, aggressive, quick team. I think they match up really well against us. This time everything is magnified since we're in the final four."
It may be magnified, but the Gators are certainly getting used to playing pressure-packed games. They defeated defending NCAA champion and 2012 NCAA semifinalist Northwestern twice this season. The second time was a 14-7 win in the American Lacrosse Conference Championship game, which Dashiell says was the highlight of her career so far.
The Gators have accomplished big things in a short time, but they know there are bigger goals to achieve on the horizon.
"While I'm proud of how far the program has come, we know there is still work to be done," O'Leary said.