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Friday May 11, 2012Gators Protect the Cage as Aggressively as They Attack it

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- During three years together, what started out as growing pains have evolved into something of a shared sixth sense among the stubborn core of defenders that protect the Florida lacrosse cage.

These players took a chance that UF's fledgling program, which debuted in 2010, could grow into a national power. On the way to making that vision a reality, an uncanny sort of chemistry has developed.

Take juniors Emily Dohony and Sammy Farrell. They were part of UF's inaugural signing class, the one that blazed a trail to Gainesville despite no history or even a field to practice on; the top-ranked recruiting class in women's collegiate lacrosse, by the way.

Three years later, they're part of the No. 1-ranked team in the nation -- 2012 regular season and tournament champions of the American Lacrosse Conference -- and know one another like they know their own reflections.

That familiarity is why the Gators held Ohio State to just four goals in the conference semifinals last weekend, then the next day stifled top-ranked and defending national champ Northwestern in a 14-7 route for the tournament title.

"It's like we know what each other is doing before we do it," Dohony said. "Sometimes after games, we'll say, 'Yeah, I knew what you were thinking there.' "

That sort of telepathy figures to serve the Gators (17-2) well as they head into the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed. UF opens will be at home Saturday with first-round date against 16-seeded Albany (12-5) at 1 p.m. at Dizney Stadium.

Florida may be the highest-scoring team in the country, averaging 15.9 goals per game, but those prolific attackers out front are the beneficiaries of tenacious defense in the back.

"The turnovers we get, the ground balls, they mean as much as the goals being scored," Dohony said. "The goals may show on the scoreboard, ..."

Farrell interrupted. " ... But being able to stop the leading scorers on the other end ... ."

Dohony finished for Farrell. "... yeah, that's a great feeling."

They know what each other is thinking, all right.

And apparently what they're saying.

"One of the reasons our team excels is that they've been playing together for 2 1/2, three years now," Coach Amanda O'Leary said. "They know each other strengths and weaknesses. They cover each other's backs. When one makes a mistake, another is there to help out."

The mistakes in the ALC tourney were few and far between. Ohio State attack Alayna Markwordt, with 90 points (41 goals, 49 assists) this season, scored three of the Buckeyes' four goals, but that was it. No assists. OSU's four goals were a season-low.

The next day, the Gators faced Northwestern, winner of six of the last seven national championships and led by Shannon Smith, the ALC scoring leader with 60 goals coming in. Florida, which plays exclusively from a man-to-man set, held Smith, the 2011 National Player of the Year, without a point for the first time in 62 games.

"Our defense works so hard," said UF midfielder Shannon Gilroy, who ripped the Wildcats for a career-high seven goals. "When they come up with the ball, it's our opportunity to finish what they started."

On defense, it starts with good footwork, lateral speed and constant communication. Defenders look to stay between their marked player and the goal. They can check with their sticks (without full arm extension) and use it to impede the attacker's vision of the goal.

In many ways, a lot of the defensive fundamentals played around the cage are like defense played on the basketball court. O'Leary, in fact, is a big basketball fan and has watched both Billy Donovan and Amanda Butler put their hoops teams through practice. She has borrowed drills to accentuate footwork and watched tape to see how they play through picks and screens.

"It's 5-v-5, but add two and you have a lacrosse game," O'Leary said. "I've learned an incredible amount watching basketball films and basketball games. A lot of that we can translate onto the field."

A lot evidently has.

The bulk of Florida's defenders arrived with resumes as hot-shot scorers. Farrell, from the lacrosse hot bed of Maryland, scored "50 or 60" goals her senior year, she said. She scored one this season for the Gators, but was second on the team in ground balls with 35.

"I love it," she said.

"You have to be pretty humble if you're going to be a defender," O'Leary said."You're not going to get the headlines."

Maybe not, but they're just as important when it comes to getting the hardware.


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