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Saturday May 19, 2012A 'Monumental Win' for O'Leary, Gators' Third-Year Lacrosse Program

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – That patch of land filled mostly with trees and sand that Amanda O'Leary saw five years ago when she first visited the UF campus is all grown up.

On Saturday afternoon, in that very same spot where Gators athletic director Jeremy Foley once showed O'Leary where Florida's future lacrosse stadium would be, a minor earthquake rumbled below.

The Gators were on their way to the Final Four. Yes, the same Gators who didn't even play their first game until Feb. 20, 2010.

It took all of 59 games, a lifespan that has gone from infant to adult in less time than it takes many human infants to dispatch of diapers.

The Gators are only the second program in the 30-year history of the NCAA women's lacrosse tournament – and first since the format went to 16 teams – to advance to the Final Four in only its third season.

They did it loudly, thumping Penn State 15-2 in one of the program's most dominating performances from start to finish.

"This was 60 minutes of great lacrosse for Florida,'' O'Leary said.

Gators freshman Shannon Gilroy scored two quick goals, and after Penn State trimmed the lead to 2-1, Florida surged ahead 7-1 and never looked back, holding the Nittany Lions without a goal for more than 16 minutes during one stretch of the first half.

They could have started packing their bags for Stony Brook, N.Y. – site of next weekend's Final Four – at halftime. The Gators advanced to face Syracuse, a 17-16 winner over North Carolina on Saturday.

It was complete domination.

The Gators won draws, ground balls, and limited Penn State's scoring opportunities. They also got another stellar effort in goal by keeper Mikey Meagher.

Afterward, they celebrated the 45th win in school history like none of the ones before.

"This feels amazing,'' Meagher said. "We definitely don't want to stop now."

The Gators had the eye of the tiger from the very beginning. Kitty Cullen, who had two goals and an assist Saturday, was partly driven by the memory of what happened a year ago.

Florida (19-2) nearly rocked the lacrosse community by making it to the Final Four in Year 2. However, a loss to Duke at home ended the Gators' season and lit a fire within.

"I remember sitting in this exact spot last year just being so upset thinking, 'we could have done this, we could have done that, we could be going to the Final Four,' '' Cullen recalled.

Cullen often was reminded of the ultimate goal this season by family and friends who told her that they had already booked rooms in Stony Brook for this year's Final Four.

They won't have to cancel those reservations.

Penn State goalkeeper Dana Cahill was the American Lacrosse Goalkeeper of the Year. She never had a chance against a fired up Florida team that outshot the Nittany Lions by a whopping 34-12 margin.

Cahill posed with her teammates for some posterity photos after the final game of her career. During the game there wasn't much to remember other than her 13 saves.

"They are a great team, you can't deny that,'' Cahill said. "With a team like that – and it showed today – they just never stop."

Making matters worse for Penn State was the absence of leading scorer Maggie McCormick, who was out with an injury. Still, that might not have mattered much with Florida playing at such a high level.

This was the Gators playing at their best.

Meagher received messages from friends back home in Liverpool, N.Y., all week wishing the Gators good luck. Many of them aren't lacrosse fans and don't quite understand how unique what the Gators have done in their brief existence is.

"They can't believe how great a team we are in such a short amount of time,'' Meagher said. "It's just incredible."

In many ways it really is.

Third-year programs aren't supposed to do what the Gators have done. O'Leary won a national title as a player at Temple – beating Penn State in 1988.

She won a national championship at Maryland as an assistant coach. Now, after 14 years at Yale and three at Florida, O'Leary will try to win her first national championship as a head coach.

"This was a monumental win for us,'' she said. "We have been preparing for this since we lost to Duke in the same round last year."

O'Leary credited the Gators with playing full of heart and passion on Saturday. They also got it done physically; executing the offensive game plan installed by assistant coaches Erica LaGrow and Caitlyn McFadden to perfection.

Defensively, Florida gave the Nittany Lions little room to maneuver. It was the kind of performance that will have the baby Gators as a favorite in New York.

"All the pieces to the puzzle just fit today,'' O'Leary said.

Next stop, Stony Brook.

That seems a long way from that empty field Foley showed O'Leary five years ago.

"It's exciting, it's wonderful, but I think it's more of a testament to the University of Florida, to Jeremy Foley, to these young ladies, to our coaching staff, to our support staff,'' she said. "It's a whole group of individuals. It's not just one person who decides, 'OK, we're going to make it to the Final Four.' It starts at the top and it goes all the way down.

"It's a tremendous accomplishment, one I'm incredibly, incredibly, proud of, but we have some more work to do. I hope that I can stand up here in a little while and say this wasn't the most proud moment."

 

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