Entering the program’s third year, No. 4 Florida Gators lacrosse is looking to continue their record pace and become the fastest team in the sport’s history to win the NCAA Championship. The Gators progressed from new kids on the block in 2010 to one of the elite teams in the country in 2011 and hope to continue that progress.
Florida opens their 2012 campaign on the road Saturday at No. 3 North Carolina for the second-straight year and is looking to avenge a tough 10-9 overtime loss.
Following the defeat in their 2011 opener, the Gators went on 14-match winning streak that spanned two months. Florida lost their final regular season game 9-6 to Cornell; however, UF still finished 11-0 at home and captured the 2011 ALC regular season title. The Gators then fell in the conference’s tournament to Northwestern and were ousted in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament by a talented Duke team.
Midfielder Janine Hillier: Florida’s fourth-leading scorer from 2011, Hillier decided to transfer to Stony Brook for her final two years of eligibility. Part of the Gators’ inaugural recruiting class, she scored 34 goals and added six assists in 2011 and was an integral part of UF’s success. Hillier chose to transfer for what were deemed “personal reasons.” Those may include Stony Brook being closer to her hometown and her sister, Kim Hillier, serving as an assistant coach on the team.
KEY PLAYERS RETURNING
Junior attacker Kitty Cullen: A dynamic scorer and threat from anywhere on the field, Cullen led Florida and the nation with 77 goals in her sophomore campaign. She was named a consensus first-team All-American and All-ALC player as well as the 2011 ALC Player of the Year while averaging 4.3 points per game with a .501 shooting percentage and .755 shots on goal percentage. Cullen scored a point in every game in 2011 and now has a 24-game streak in that category dating back to April 28, 2010.
Junior attacker Ashley Bruns: Cullen’s cohort for the last two years, Bruns boats more of an all-around game as evidenced by her scoring 46 goals and adding 28 assists for the Gators in 2011. An All-ALC first-team selection, she was also recognized nationally for her accomplishments and will continue to build on her game in 2012.
Junior defender Sam Farrell: Though she did not score a single point for Florida in 2011, Farrell was one of three Gators (Cullen, Bruns) named to the ALC’s “Players to Watch” list during the preseason because her incredible prowess on the defensive end of the field. She started all 20 matches for Florida, and her 27 ground balls in 2011 were fourth-best on the team. Farrell earned a selection to the All-ALC first team as well as nod to one second team All-America.
Junior goalkeeper Mikey Meagher: One of the top 10 goalies in the country (in goals against average), Meagher allowed just 8.66 shots past her per game while helping lead the Gators to arguably the best second-year performance of any team in the sport’s history. She was an All-ALC second-team pick and hopes to continue to perfect her game while starting in the net for the third-straight season.
Florida’s initial recruiting class, ranked No. 1 nationally in 2010, boasts a number of terrific returning players who will undoubtedly have a big impact on the Gators this year. Two other standout performers from a year ago – juniors midfielder Brittany Dashiell and attacker Caroline Chesterman – combined to score 68 goals and register 16 assists last season. Dashiell started all 20 games, led Florida in draw controls (49) and was second in ground balls (30), while Chesterman serves as a co-captain, posted a team-best .554 shooting percentage and started 13 matches.
Junior attacker Gabi Wiegand: A transfer from Richmond, Wiegand started nine games as a sophomore and was third on the team in goals (33) and assists (13) for her former school. Looking to compete at a higher level, she decided to make the move to UF and earned a start in the Gators’ exhibition contest against England in which she posted five goals and two assists in the team’s impressive 17-2 victory.
Florida’s No. 3-ranked recruiting class includes four members of Inside Lacrosse Magazine’s top 25 freshman list. M Shannon Gilroy (6), A Nicole Graziano (12), M Nora Barry (15) and M/D Sally Jentis (18) should all see action on the pitch in 2012 though just how much time certainly remains to be seen.
BIG QUESTIONS FOR 2012
How much will Hillier’s departure hurt the Gators’ chemistry?
There is no denying how good of a player Hillier was during her time wearing orange and blue, and it should not be doubted that Florida will have to go through some trial and error in replacing her as a starter, but one thing the Gators’ have is scorers. Hillier’s 34 goals from a year ago should be replaceable but her defense and nose for the ball – including 18 caused turnovers and 35 defensive clears (both second-most on the team) – will be tougher to supplant. Offense gets all of the glory in lacrosse but scoring opportunities come from turnovers and getting as many possessions as possible, which is one area in which Hillier truly exceeded for UF.
Just how talented is head coach Amanda O’Leary?
In order for Florida to actually win it all in 2012 (more on that below), the freshman class is going to have to play a major role. How well they blend in with the strong junior leadership and flow that the Gators have developed over the last two seasons will be a task O’Leary is responsible for overseeing.
She has proven to be a stellar recruiter and perhaps an even better coach, leading a team of freshmen to a respectable finish in the program’s first year and giving Florida a legitimate shot at a national title in the team’s second season of play. But there is a big difference between being a very good coach and a great coach.
In other words, it is one thing to get your team to the big dance and quite another to ensure they’re the ones still celebrating when the music stops. O’Leary’s early success will give her plenty of time to succeed with this Gators team. She has already built Florida into a program that recruits and plays with the best of them. However, she also has a unique opportunity to not only make a name for herself nationally but perhaps even establish herself as one of the best coaches in school history.
Can Florida actually take the final step and win a national title?
The short answer is: Yes. The Gators played so well in 2011 that there were only a few goals the team failed to reach when the book on the season was closed. Florida posted a 13-game winning streak, won a conference title and made their first NCAA Tournament berth, but the Gators did not go undefeated in the regular season, win the ALC Tournament or advance to the national championship game.
That first endeavor may be a bit of a stretch; however, it is certainly not impossible with all of the arrows pointing up for Florida in 2012. Unlike football, basketball and even baseball to some extent, there is not much turnover in the sport of lacrosse and O’Leary is returning a team that is experienced, immensely talented, well-coached and motivated.
The Gators have played the country’s best competition on the road and at home, know what it’s like to compete at the highest level in tournaments and have two years of collegiate lacrosse under their collective belt.
It will always be tough for Florida to take down some of the championship factories out there (namely Northwestern, Maryland and North Carolina), but the Gators are in the perfect position to do just that in 2012 and could very well bring home the school’s first lacrosse title this year.
Photo Credit: Matt Stamey/The Gainesville Sun