GatorZone.com Senior Writer
STONY BROOK, N.Y. – The Florida lacrosse team arrived here Wednesday afternoon and went straight to work.
The Gators had planned to make a stop at the team hotel prior to turning their attention to preparation for Friday's NCAA semifinal game against Syracuse. However, a late bus changed that plan.
Instead, they went directly from the airport to the campus of Stony Brook University, site of this week's NCAA Women's Lacrosse Final Four.
Once they finished practice, the Gators went home for dinner – literally. In this case, the home of junior attacker Gabi Wiegand, who grew up just a few miles away in Bay Shore, N.Y.
While this is clearly a business trip for the Gators, it is also a homecoming.
"It's definitely nice to be able to go home,'' Wiegand said. "My family can't come to a lot of games. I'll have a huge fan club."
As the team bus made its way down a Long Island highway toward Stony Brook's campus, several of Wiegand's teammates asked what was for dinner. For those curious, her mom prepared pasta dishes to help the Gators refuel and share some family time.
Wiegand isn't the only Gator from Long Island. It's a place Gators coach Amanda O'Leary spends a lot of time to recruit.
She has to considering that in the world of lacrosse, Long Island is like South Florida is to football recruiting.
"It's like a second home,'' O'Leary said. "I know my way around."
Only three of the 24 players on the roster are from Florida, with the rest from Maryland, New Jersey or New York. The players understand the lacrosse culture in the Northeast in a way many of the fans who show up regularly at Don Dizney Stadium back home night not.
"It's very popular,'' said freshman midfielder Shannon Gilroy, who is from Northport, N.Y., on Long Island. "I expect a lot of noise, a lot of people and a lot of people ready to see Gator lacrosse.''
Fellow New Yorker Caroline Chesterman agrees.
"Long Island, all the laxers are there,'' she said. "It's the whole new 'it' sport. It used to be soccer I feel like.
"I went to the Final Four last year. So it's cool being able to see it and then this year actually being able to participate."
Wiegand also made the short trip from her home to Stony Brook a year ago to watch the Final Four. The Gators have surpassed expectations by advancing this far in only the program's third season.
They are two wins from a national title, a fact difficult to grasp for some who follow the sport closely.
While the sport is not deeply rooted in the South, Florida fans have turned out regularly at Dizney Stadium to support this new team playing this Northern sport.
Gilroy has played the sport since second grade. Chesterman since she was shorter than a lacrosse stick. It's a way of life.
Chesterman has imagined a moment like this since the NCAA moved the Final Four to Stony Brook a few years ago.
"A lot of my friends, families and neighbors are all coming up,'' she said. "I'm actually thrilled that it's so close to home because in past years the games have been in Maryland. Just having an opportunity to play in front of friends and families is awesome."
With so many players from the Northeast, the Gators often have nearly as many fans at road games as the home team. When they played at Johns Hopkins earlier this season in Baltimore, more than 200 fans had a cookout with the team following the game.
A similar scene is expected Friday when the Gators face Syracuse for a spot in the national championship game. The Gators won't be lacking for support. Or talent.
Chesterman was sold on coming to Florida to play for a lot of reasons, topping the list the chance to win a national title.
"One day you're going to be good, guys, I promise,'' Chesterman said O'Leary told the inaugural 2010 team. "I believed Mandee when she said it. It's great how far we've come and all the hard work we've put to be in this situation."
Wiegand transferred into the program from Richmond. She quickly felt at home and produced a team-leading 46 goals.
She hopes to add more goals in the biggest moment of her career. To do it while back home would make it extra special.
"I've been going [to the Final Four] every year since high school hoping one day that I would be on that field,'' she said. "I made a good decision by coming here."