GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- When the Gators lacrosse team takes the field on Sunday for its season-opening game against the Colorado Buffs, much more than winning will be on the minds of both teams.
Although the teams have never played each other, they already share a bond through the recent death of Colorado senior Julia Sarcona.Sarcona, who died in a single-car accident on Jan. 13, grew up playing lacrosse with UF senior midfielder Allie Pavinelli in Northport, N.Y. The two best friends were neighbors since birth, so the sudden death of Sarcona shocked Pavinelli, as well as the entire lacrosse community.
Sarcona was known for her positive energy and motivating personality. She wasn't the one scoring all the goals, but Sarcona was a special teammate to so many at Colorado and in Northport, located on Long Island.
"She was a player that didn't get the most minutes on the team, but it didn't matter to her," Pavinelli said. "She was the type of teammate and person you wanted on your team. She was their soul-center, so it's going to be really hard for them without her."
The 21-year-old Sarcona's death has inspired those closest to her to honor her memory. The Gators are wearing special wristbands in honor of Sarcona during Sunday's game at Dizney Stadium. The team gathered last weekend to paint a mural in Sarcona's honor on the 34th Street Wall that borders the UF campus.
"The loss of Julia Sarcona is heartbreaking for our team and lacrosse family," Colorado head coach Ann Elliott said in a prepared statement following Sarcona's death. "Our thoughts and all our love is with her family as I cannot even imagine what they are going through."For Pavinelli, the loss of Sarcona not only means the loss of her best friend, but also an inspiration. Sarcona's ability to put her team first above her competitiveness always inspired Pavinelli, she said.
Sunday's game was initially going to mark the first and likely only time the childhood friends would face each other in college on the lacrosse field.
"Now it's just going to be a way to remember her and remember what it was like to play lacrosse together," Pavinelli said. "We are going to play for her. Colorado's going to play for her."
Since Sarcona's death, the game has become special for those in the lacrosse community from coast to coast. Another close friend of Sarcona's from Northport, Bryant (R.I.) University senior Madison McNally, plans to attend. Her teammates surprised McNally with an airline ticket for the trip to Florida for the special tribute.
Hey @CUBuffsWLax @GatorsLAX you have room for one more this weekend? Our lax family surprised one of our seniors so that she could join yours this weekend in Gainesville. #JS15 pic.twitter.com/JoobLSQbvF— Bryant Women's Lax (@BryantWLax) February 7, 2018
Gators assistant coach Taryn VanThof said that while the tragedy has been a jolt to Pavinelli, the entire Gator team has offered its support during a difficult time.
"Having 31 best friends here makes it a little bit different," VanThof said. "It's going to be a really emotional game because it was a loss that hit everyone."
The Gators and Buffs will remember Sarcona by not only wearing the commemorative wristbands, but T-shirts and patches with Sarcona's No. 15 on them. Many of Pavinelli's friends, along will Sarcona's family, will also be there to honor their friend and daughter.
Regardless of who wins Sunday, Pavinelli said she just hopes she can make the weekend a very special tribute to her friend. While Sarcona may be gone, she will never be forgotten.
Not by anyone who knew her.
"It's going to be a really emotional weekend for all of us," Pavinelli said. "We're really just trying to make this as special as we can for her because all of us are going to be playing for her."