GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The second game of the American Lacrosse Conference Tournament was about to begin on Thursday night between Ohio State and Vanderbilt.
As the teams loosened up on the field at Don Dizney Stadium, evidence of a nearby cookout waffled through the air. Underneath a patch of live oaks and pine trees behind the Florida Lacrosse Facility, a group of diehard Gator fans were doing what they do every home game and nearly every away game.
They tailgated in a way that would make the thousands outside The Swamp on a Saturday afternoon proud.
The grill was loaded with sausages and burgers. The drinks were on ice. The smell of a good cigar danced around the crowd.
As he does nearly every time the Gators play at home, Kevin Dohony boarded a flight from Baltimore to Tampa on Wednesday. His brother-in-law, Ray McDonald, picked him up at the airport for the drive to Gainesville.
Once they arrived, they joined Ron Reeg at their favorite spot on UF’s campus. Reeg, the father of Gators junior defender Jamie Reeg, is an unofficial organizer of many of the group’s event. Jamie is one of only three Floridians on the third-year Gators lacrosse program’s roster, so Ron tries to get a head start on the tailgate since he can make the drive from his home near West Palm Beach while the other parents fly in from out of town.
“We can’t wait for the lacrosse season to start,’’ Ron Reeg said. “It’s fun.”
With the lacrosse culture in Florida still an infant compared to the Northeastern part of the country, Florida coach Amanda O’Leary spends a lot of time up north. The Gators’ roster is made up entirely of players from Maryland, New Jersey and New York other than for in-state recruits Reeg (Atlantis), midfielder Krista Grabher (Vero Beach) and attacker Taylor McCord (Jacksonville).
But make no mistake, Florida is not lacking for fan support. When the Gators played at Johns Hopkins earlier this season, more than 150 Florida fans tailgated before the game. When they won at Northwestern two weeks ago to clinch the ALC regular-season title on a chilly afternoon near Chicago, dozens of Gator fans joined the team during a postgame celebration.
These aren’t just any fans. They are a large group of parents, family and friends mostly from the Northeast who have the resources and interest to invest their money, time and hearts into what many of them consider a unique experience.
“These people share in victories and defeats,’’ said Kevin Dohony, whose daughter Emily is a junior defender from Parkton, Md. “It’s important for the families to get to know each other and to get to know each other’s daughters.
“Some of these kids come from as far as 1,000 or 1,100 miles away from home. While they are accomplished at what they do, they are still young people and need support. I want to know that if I can’t make it for game, my daughter will have someone familiar to hug her or congratulate her the way I would.”
Florida coach Amanda O’Leary expected a supportive group of parents to attend games regularly when the Gators began playing in 2010. She said Thursday that on recruiting trips one of her first questions to out-of-state players is whether they are OK with moving so far away from home.
Whenever that question came up with this group – the players in her initial recruiting class are now juniors – the parents often chimed in.
“The parents were always like, ‘Well, they’re not going to be too far away because we’re going to come to every single game.’ ’’
If O’Leary didn’t believe them then, she does now.
“They have absolutely been a part of it from the very beginning,’’ O’Leary said. “They’ve done a great job. They travel to almost every game, if not every game. It’s fun to arrive at a hotel and have the parents there welcoming us. When you step on the field it’s like you almost have home-field advantage no matter where you are because there are so many parents in the stands.”
After games, win or lose, the group always has a hot meal waiting for their daughters. They catch up for a half-hour and then enjoy each other’s company until they are ready to call it a night.
The crowd on Thursday night was smaller than usual since the Gators were not playing. However, with several more groups of parents arriving in town for Florida’s game Friday night against Ohio State, Reeg planned to stock up on more supplies.
“It’s really a good time and I enjoy doing it,’’ Reeg said. “It’s kind of been a tradition for all the people from Maryland and New York since the girls were young. We now have started that kind of tradition in Florida.”
The No. 1-seed Gators enter the tournament with hopes of a national title, which would be a major accomplishment for a third-year program.
McDonald is Emily Dohony’s uncle. He played lacrosse at Salisbury (Md.) University as did his wife, Katie, and her sister, Mary. Mary Dohony, Emily’s mother, is a member of the Salisbury University Athletics Hall of Fame.
Lacrosse is truly a family affair. The McDonalds live near Tampa and remain close to the game through their niece. Ray McDonald plans to be at every game the rest of the way.
The NCAA Finals are in Stony Brook, N.Y. That won’t shrink the crowd if the Gators make it that far. If anything, the group will set a new record for its largest tailgate yet.
“I want a national championship,’’ McDonald said. “That’s what I want.”