GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Ashley Bruns first started to notice the unfamiliar face early in her junior season of high school.
A top lacrosse player at Mt. Hebron (Md.) High at the time, Bruns had no idea who Amanda O’Leary was or why she kept showing up at Bruns’ games. She soon found out that O’Leary, after 14 seasons as Yale’s head coach, was the new lacrosse coach at Florida.
Florida has a lacrosse team? That was one of Bruns’ first thoughts.
“I’ve never even heard of lacrosse in Florida,’’ Bruns said.
Technically, Florida didn’t have a team or stadium at the time. The Gators had a coach searching for players and an athletic director committed to building one of the finest lacrosse facilities in the nation.
Soon, Bruns knew where she wanted to go to college and continue her career.
“I committed real early,’’ she said.
Fast forward three years, and the sophomore attacker couldn’t stop smiling as she talked about the state of Florida’s lacrosse program following a recent win over University of Maryland-Baltimore County.
Bruns stood on a walkway overlooking Donald R. Dizney Stadium. The field below wasn’t there when she made her recruiting visit. Neither was the shiny facility that holds the Gators’ state-of-the-art locker room and the opponents’ dressing room.
The visitor’s locker room is so nice that coaches from opposing teams have been known to keep it from the view of their players, preferring to dress on the bus instead of using a facility that is much nicer than the one back home.
O’Leary remembers talking with Foley about the program’s future home long before it was built. Foley, a former lacrosse player at Hobart College in upstate New York, promised a nice facility, plenty of resources and a commitment to winning.
He wasn’t kidding.
“This is the Taj Mahal of lacrosse facilities,’’ O’Leary said. “There aren’t many places you are going to find this.’’
Some of the newness has worn off in the program’s second season. The Gators finished 10-8 in their inaugural season, quickly establishing a reputation as a program on the fast track to success.
They are 4-1 following Saturday’s home win against Lehigh and host No. 7 Georgetown on Wednesday.
The buzz and excitement around the program remains evident, but there is a different attitude in the huge locker room that features a video board and all the gadgets of modern technology.
“I feel like having that first year under our belt is what we needed,’’ sophomore attacker Janine Hillier said. “It’s we’ve-been-here-before kind of thing. We are all really competitive. We’re fired up 24/7, day in and day out.’’
As she put together her inaugural team, O’Leary roamed many of the same areas throughout the Northeast she did during her successful run at Yale. Lacrosse is deeply rooted in places like Baltimore and New Jersey and Long Island, N.Y.
She knew that’s where the best players are, and it was obvious in the Gators’ recent win over UMBC. Florida has 16 players on its roster from Maryland; UMBC had 17. Of the 27 players on Florida’s current roster, only two – Jamie Reeg (Atlantis) and Krista Grabher (Vero Beach) – are products of the Sunshine State.
The other Gators are from New York (five players), New Jersey (two) and Virginia (two).
Hillier is from Farmingdale, N.Y. When it was time to make her decision on college, she had offers to remain in the Northeast where lacrosse has much more tradition and a passionate following.
Instead, she said it was an easy sell when O’Leary offered the opportunity to join Florida’s inaugural team.
“What sold me on Florida is that I wanted to impact a program right away,’’ Hillier said. “It was a chance to create history with some great teammates.’’
It doesn’t take long to realize that the Gators don’t play like a second-year program and certainly don’t view themselves as one.
They want to win and win big right away. They don’t see any reason why that can’t happen as a member of the American Lacrosse Conference, which features some of the top teams, including perennial power Northwestern.
“The biggest change from the first year is how we play together,’’ Bruns said. “On the field, we know everything that each other wants to do. We have so much chemistry.
“It doesn’t feel like a second-year program. I feel like we can go all the way.’’
O’Leary doesn’t quash such talk. She has been around the game most of her life and knows a good player when she sees one. She sees a Florida lineup loaded with them.
“These guys have set their goals really high,’’ O’Leary said. “They want to be competitive with the top teams in the country, and they can. They are tremendous athletes; they are great lacrosse players. There is no reason they shouldn’t have those lofty goals.’’
The Gators are ranked in the top 20 in all three of the major lacrosse polls and feature one of the nation’s top scorers in sophomore midfielder Kitty Cullen, named Friday to the Tewaaraton Award watch list. The Tewaaraton Award is given to the nation’s top player each season, sort of like the Heisman Trophy of lacrosse.
So while many second-year teams in sports often hope just for a few more wins or to finally beat their main rival or to flirt with a .500 record, the Gators are full-speed ahead.
“It’s a building phase,’’ O’Leary said. “Last year was Phase I. It was a matter of the girls getting to know each other. This year, with a whole year of playing together, it’s evolving as any team would.
“They have great team chemistry. They have great work ethic. Like any team, we want to win a national championship – sooner rather than later. When that comes? Who knows, but this group has that goal in their mind. And this is a group that can do it.’’