GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The clock neared 10 seconds remaining and play continued at midfield, but Florida sophomore Kitty Cullen raced toward the south end of the field and into the open arms of Gators goalkeeper Mikey Meagher.
Or maybe she floated. The moment seemed surreal to Cullen.
Was this happening? Did the Gators really just beat No. 2-ranked Northwestern, which has played for the last six national titles, in only their second season of existence? Did Cullen and Meagher truly just have career performances in the biggest game in the brief history of the Florida lacrosse program?
Yes, yes and yes.
All those thoughts and more raced around Cullen’s head as the final seconds ticked off in Florida’s 13-11 victory over the Wildcats. For a few moments, Dizney Stadium seemed more like Disney World for the duo as they jumped up and down, detached from the rest of the world.
“I can’t believe it,’’ Cullen said.
Soon, they were mobbed by their teammates in front of a standing-room-only crowd that broke out the Gator Chomp in the final seconds, creating a Kodak moment for many in the crowd.
“I was just screaming, ‘Oh my God, we just won.’ It was so exciting,’’ Cullen said after her fourth six-goal game of the season. “I’m so happy for me and my team. I wouldn’t want to share this with anyone else. This is what we’ve worked so hard for day in and day out.’’
The Gators took the field Thursday night confident they would be more of a thorn in Northwestern’s side than they were a year ago, when the Wildcats lost to Maryland in the NCAA title game, ending a streak of five consecutive national titles.
After all, last season’s game – a 19-5 Northwestern victory – was over by halftime. The Gators fell behind 15-0 before scoring a goal.
“We quite honestly got embarrassed last year by this team,’’ Florida coach Amanda O’Leary said. “They were just so much better than us.’’
Everyone knew the Gators were improved, but no one knew for sure what to expect in Thursday’s rematch. Would the tradition-rich Wildcats show up with an attitude? Would the Gators show their youth? Could Northwestern really lose its first American Lacrosse Conference game in seven years?
The Gators, ranked No. 6, had won 12 in a row after losing to North Carolina in the season opener. Meanwhile, the Wildcats entered a perfect 12-0, undefeated since that loss to the Terrapins last May.
Thursday’s game didn’t quite seem like the David vs. Goliath matchup from a year ago, but it still had a big brother vs. little brother backdrop. The Gators had beaten four ranked teams on their way to Thursday, but Northwestern had beaten 10.
Not only were the Wildcats undefeated, they won easily, never trailing by more than three goals the entire season and just once at halftime. Both of those times came in a 12-10 comeback win over Duke two weeks ago.
So when the Gators jumped to a 5-1 lead on Thursday behind three quick goals from Cullen, and carried a 9-4 lead into halftime, you started to feel like something special might be in the making.
“Our team comes out of the locker room very fired up,’’ O’Leary said. “It doesn’t take a whole lot to get fired up to play the No. 2-ranked team in the country.’’
You knew the Wildcats weren’t going to go away quietly, and they proved it by coming out in the second half and quickly scoring three goals in a little more than three minutes. Suddenly, the Gators looked slower, less confident than they did in the first half.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats looked dangerous, like a cat on the prowl and with its prey in sight. The game went back and forth until Meagher left the net to try to steal a pass. She missed, and the ball ended up on the stick of Shannon Smith, who scored to trim Florida’s lead to a goal with 6:37 remaining.
It felt like the game was slipping away for the Gators.
“In practice, the coaches encourage me to try and go out and get those free balls,’’ Meagher said. “It’s going to happen. We just kind of regrouped. They told me it was OK, and we just got back on it.’’
Crunch time had officially arrived. O’Leary wasn’t overly concerned.
“I don’t think we were pressing the panic button,’’ O’Leary said.
Instead of the veteran Wildcats coming through in the clutch, it was the young Gators, led by Cullen and Meagher. Cullen scored the game’s final goal a minute after Smith’s score trimmed the lead to one, and then Meagher stole the show in the final minutes.
Playing two short the majority of the final three minutes because of a pair of yellow cards, Meagher made a series of critical saves to preserve what will be remembered as a signature victory for the Gators.
The win is the kind that will catch the college lacrosse world’s attention. It’s the kind of win that makes people wonder what this Gators team can do in just its second season. It’s the kind of moment that changes a program’s identity and its perception to the outside world.
“It kind of shows us, ‘Hey, we can do it,’ ’’ said Cullen, who scored Florida’s final three goals and now has a NCAA-best 67 on the season.
The Gators grew up Thursday. The players and the fans and the program.
“To get the fans and the support we have is just unreal, because they didn’t know a lot about it,’’ Meagher said. “But now they are starting to understand it and love the game.’’
As she finished postgame interviews, O’Leary shared her view of this team.
She spent 14 years at Yale prior to taking over a Florida program that didn’t even have a field or practice facility when she took the job. She then had to go find players.
She obviously found some good ones. They paid her back for believing in them on a warm Thursday night.
“This is an amazing team, and it is really a team,’’ O’Leary said. “This is the best I’ve ever coached from top to bottom. I had some great players at Yale and some great teams at Yale, but overall, this team from top to bottom is probably the most talented group I have ever worked with.
“This win is tremendous.’’