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Saturday May 26, 2012Gators' Historic Season Comes to a Painful Close

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

STONY BROOK, N.Y. – This one is going to sting for the Gators like a bad sunburn does for a couple of days. And then it will itch for a few more days when the peeling away of a historic season begins.

Relief will eventually arrive, but not until the Gators work through the necessary stages.

The Florida lacrosse team's third season came to a sudden end Friday night in a 14-13 double-overtime loss to Syracuse. They lost much more, of course, with a berth in the national championship game Sunday on the line.

The Gators appeared on the way to a rout for more than 40 minutes, taking a seven-goal lead (12-5) with a little over 17 minutes left in the game. And then it was gone.

Syracuse senior Sarah Holden's goal with 30 seconds remaining in regulation tied the game 13-13 and forced overtime. But the real drama was just beginning.

In the first overtime, neither team scored in the opening three-minute session. In the second session, the game remained tied for 2 minutes, 51 seconds as Florida held onto possession of the ball for a final shot.

Finally, Gators junior Gabi Wiegand, a native Long Islander who grew up just a few miles from Stony Brook University's LaValle Stadium, stomped toward the goal for a shot.

Wiegand was fouled. She got a free-position shot on goal. She scored with nine seconds left. The Gators, the new kids at the Final Four in only their third season of existence, had done the impossible.

A team from the South had a chance to win a national title in a sport of the North.

"We were cheering and excited and thought we won the game,'' said Gators junior Brittany Dashiell.

"We were obviously elated,'' Gators coach Amanda O'Leary said. "We thought the goal was a great goal and it was a great play we set up."

As you can probably tell according to those comments, there is a big "but" about to be dropped on your head. The green scorebook handed out in the press box afterward has no mention of Wiegand's goal.

Yes, as strange as it seems, in the most intense moment in Florida's young lacrosse history, history will show that it never happened other than those grainy TV highlights in 25 years.

The last two scores listed in the scorebook are Holden's goal at the end of regulation and the one she scored 58 seconds into double overtime that gave the Orange the dramatic come-from-behind win.

"It was insane,'' Holden said.

That phrase has a totally different connotation for the Gators. Here's why: a stick check after Wiegand's goal.

Those who follow lacrosse closely know that stick checks are as much part of the game's fabric as first-down measurements in football. It's an imperfect art to say the least.

The Gators discovered that in heartbreaking fashion when Syracuse's Alyssa Murray urged Orange coach Gary Gait to call for a check of Wiegand's stick.

The referees ruled that the netting on the head of Wiegand's stick was too deep. No goal.

"Teams have done it to us. We have done it to teams,'' Murray said of requesting a stick check. "If it's the winning goal or potential winning goal, you just want to make sure if there is anything you can do to call it back.

"We were fighting for our life and I felt that's just something we had to do."

As fans cried conspiracy on Twitter and debated the call on message boards, the Gators said all the right things in their postgame press conference. They had been here before but not in as bright a spotlight.

Earlier this season at Johns Hopkins the Gators scored on Kitty Cullen's game-tying goal with 34 seconds left in regulation. Johns Hopkins asked for a stick check and Cullen's goal was negated.

The Gators scored again seconds later and won in overtime. They were forced to accept the other side of stick-check reality on Friday.

"It was smart by Syracuse to call those stick checks and unfortunately we couldn’t do anything about it but keep playing,'' said Dashiell, who scored four goals.

A little history factored into Friday's turn of events as well.

The Orange beat the Gators in Gainesville on March 3, winning 12-11 on Katie Webster's overtime goal. Florida asked for a stick check on Webster's goal that came back clean.

That was obviously on Syracuse's mind when Friday's game came down to one shot.

"We're always conscious of it,'' Gait said. "The stick was legal back then and we won the game. That was obviously a crucial error on their part [tonight], not to make sure their stick was legal."

The loss ended a remarkable season by the third-year Gators. They won 19 of 22 games and reeled off a school-record 15 consecutive wins prior to Friday's loss. Along the way, they defeated defending national champion Northwestern twice, once for the American Lacrosse Conference regular-season title and once for the ALC Tournament title.

Northwestern, which defeated Maryland in Friday's other NCAA semifinal, faces Syracuse on Sunday for the national title.

The Gators will be back in Gainesville parting ways for the summer.

While they remained in a daze in the immediate wake of Friday's loss, they know they established their place among the women's college game's hierarchy.

They don't plan to go away any time soon with only one senior on the roster.

Junior goalie Mikey Meagher "literally kept us in it'' according to O'Leary. Meagher tied the school record with 15 saves. That was of no consolation, of course, on a long night on Long Island.

Still, Meagher was able to muster up some appreciation of the journey despite its abrupt ending.

"Getting here means everything,'' she said. "We have worked so hard to get here from the day we stepped onto the field. It's terrible that we lost but we are going to learn from it."

In the end the Gators' historic season closed with a historic game. And oddly enough, a piece of that history won't show up in the record books.

Maybe that's best since the Gators will undoubtedly want to put this one behind them quickly.

 

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