GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Kitty Cullen grew up in Baltimore and as a prep superstar smack in the middle of lacrosse country she had her pick of some of the nation’s top programs.
Yet there she was, on a recruiting visit to the University of Florida in 2009 with a handful of other top-ranked prospects from the Northeast, listening to what some may have described as Fantasyland talk. Trust them, Gators officials said, because those couple hundred acres of silviculture fields on the south side of campus were about to be transformed into the finest collegiate lacrosse facility in America.
Now, they needed great players, like Cullen, to inhabit it.
She vividly recalls the pitch from Athletic Director Jeremy Foley.
“He told us we had to buy into the dream, to this work in progress,” Cullen said. “He told us to trust them, that they were going to be one of the best teams in the country.”
“We’ve come a long way in three years,” she said.
Northwestern, for example, would agree.
The Wildcats have won the NCAA women’s lacrosse title six of the last seven years, including the 2011 championship. The Gators, in just their third year of existence, upset their American Lacrosse Conference rival each of the last two regular seasons, including an 8-7 shocker April 21 at Evanston, Ill., that marked the second loss by Northwestern on its home field since 2004.
Somewhere out there, Northwestern and other lacrosse purebreds are probably thinking, “How dare they do it so quickly.”
It’s the south.
There’s no tradition.
At the state-of-the-art UF lacrosse complex, no one would blame Coach Amanda O’Leary for smiling and saying, “Get used to it, people.”
“We think we’ve established a tradition,” O’Leary said last week. “In our short amount of time, we’ve won back-to-back [regular season] ALC championships. In three years, that’s not too shabby.”
This week, the Florida program will take a few more hacks at the tradition tree when the Gators play host to their first ALC Tournament at Donald R. Dizney Stadium. UF (15-2, 5-0), which vaulted to No. 4 with that historic win at Northwestern, locked up the No. 1 seed in the tournament -- and bye into the semifinals -- and will face the winner of Thursday’s quarterfinal game between Ohio State (10-5, 1-4) and Vanderbilt (8-6, 1-4) on Friday. OSU and Vandy were ranked 12th and 19th last week, respectively.
Game time is 7 p.m.
“We think we’re even better in front of our home fans, and now we get to play the [conference] tournament here,” said Cullen, a junior and a standout attacker. “It’s exciting how it’s all come together.”
And there’s still room for growth. Lots of it.
By defeating Northwestern on the road, the Gators announced themselves as a national championship contender. Now, they’ll try to use the ALC Tournament as an affirmation. UF already has looked the part of a team that can win the whole thing; now it has to act the part.
When Florida defeated NU last year it was an epic milestone for O’Leary and her fledgling program, and the Gators celebrated as such.
“We were at home,” Cullen said. “It was crazy.”
Three weeks later, top-seeded Florida met Northwestern in the championship game of the ALC Tournament at Vandy, with the Wildcats exacting revenge in the rematch by handing the Gators a heartbreaking 10-9 defeat.
At that moment, that big win earlier in the season suddenly didn’t mean as much.
“If we play them again this year, we’ll know how to respond,” said Emily Dohony, a junior defender from Parkton, Md. “We’ll know the last game is over.”
The next phase -- and the next big step forward -- of Florida lacrosse may be just beginning.
UF 2012 is a much deeper team than a year ago, thanks to an infusion of talented newcomers, such as junior attacker Gabi Wiegand, a transfer from the University of Richmond, and freshmen midfielders Nora Barry and Shannon Gilroy. Wiegand leads the Gators with 45 goals, trailing only junior Ashley Bruns (61) and Cullen (59) in total points with 58.
“They came in and have really made a mark on our program,” O’Leary said. “We’re a pretty veteran team -- most of this group had played together for two years -- but for them to come in and break into the starting lineup says something about their character and their work ethic.”
Now, it’s time for the Gators, collectively, to try and make a statement, if they dare.
Which they do.
“There is no ceiling here,” Dohony said. “Anything is possible.”