Florida's quick rise in lacrosse
Gators make first semifinals appearance in less than 60 games
Without the benefit of a long-standing tradition or even a completed lacrosse facility, Florida asked Brittany Dashiell to look past the present and peek into a future that would include playing for national championships.
"I heard from the coaches and the athletic director, Jeremy Foley," the junior midfielder recalled. "I was just hearing from them and what they were saying about their vision for the program."
After five years of planning before playing their first contest on Feb. 20, 2010, the Gators find themselves two games away from their first Division I Women's Lacrosse national championship. It's been a quick ride for the Gators, they have only played 59 games entering this weekend's championship's semifinals at Stony Brook's LaValle Stadium.
First things first: The bracket's top seed must go through a more-established power, fourth-seeded Syracuse (18-3), that dealt them one of their two defeats (12-11 in overtime on March 3) Friday night at 5:30 p.m. Since then, however, the Gators have reeled off 15 consecutive victories.
Win Friday, and Florida will face either third-seeded Maryland (19-3), the 2010 national championship, or second-seeded Northwestern (19-2), queens of NCAA Division I lacrosse six of the last seven seasons, under the bright lights Sunday night in the final step of its surprisingly swift title quest.
"I think they're the model that all universities that add lacrosse should really look towards, the way they developed it and things they've done, it really (is) what women's lacrosse needs," Syracuse head coach Gary Gait said.
|DI WOMEN'S CHAMPIONSHIP|
Before becoming just the second third-year program to reach the Division I women's lacrosse national semifinals, the Gators enjoyed a breakthrough campaign in 2011, finishing 16-4 before being defeated by Duke in the national quarterfinals. This came after a 10-8 debut season in the swamp, when most of head coach Amanda O'Leary's current core played its first collegiate minutes.
But first, O'Leary needed to convince Dashiell, junior attacker Caroline Chesterman and the Gators' other 13 juniors that four years at Florida would be a worthwhile investment because, as she recalled earlier this week, "We had nothing to show them." O'Leary added: "These young women were trailblazers."
The opportunity to create history instead of adding onto established tradition ultimately swayed Chesterman. Of course, the Gators' success in so many other sports helped.
"The second you come down here, you can tell Florida is an amazing school. Anything they do in Florida, they do top notch," Chesterman said. "You talk to (athletic director) Jeremy Foley, you know he knows what he's doing.
"Once you come down here, how could you say no?"
More and more fans are embracing women's lacrosse and the Gators' success with each passing game. Lacrosse has, historically, been a northeastern sport, but an average of 670 fans per game have embraced Florida'a latest success story at Donald R. Dizney Stadium, down to incorporating the renowned Gator Chomp so often heard at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium (aka "The Swamp") on football Saturdays.
Even if those fans do not know lacrosse like they do football, 882 of them supported Florida when it toppled mighty Northwestern, 14-7, in the American Lacrosse Conference championship game. Not only was it their second victory this season over the Wildcats this season, but also secured the tournament's top seed.
"It's all been great, great support," Chesterman said. "The fans are starting to learn the rules and they keep cheer us on. They have all the Gator cheers. They just want us to do well."
Some of them will fill the stands championship weekend. Chesterman estimated that 80 family members and friends will make the 75-minute bus ride from South Nyack, N.Y., all in the hopes of watching the Gators capture their first national championship in just their third season.
"It is, at times, very surreal and we look back and say this is wonderful and I think we reflect upon that," O'Leary said.
"But we still have, as I said, we still have work some work to do. It's fantastic making it to this point, but no, we certainly would like to make it further, so that's what we are focusing on."