GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- In August of 2009, two dozen girls, almost all of them from the Northeast, walked onto a barren field in unforgiving heat and humidity, and launched the fledgling University of Florida lacrosse program with the very first conditioning workout.
“They had told us about it, how hard it was going to be, but none of us were really ready for it,” recalled Kitty Cullen, the senior attack from Rockville, Md. “We were throwing up, wetting our paints. Some girls fainted, some dropped like flies after a couple of runs. We look back on it and laugh now.”
Yes, Cullen laughed as she relived those memorable times.
Come Saturday, she and 12 of classmates just might think back on those days and cry.
When third-ranked UF (15-1, 3-1) faces American Lacrosse Conference rival, two-time defending national champion and fourth-ranked Northwestern (13-1, 4-0) at Dizney Stadium, the game not only will mark the regular season finale for the Gators, but also the last home game for a group of young trailblazers who were sold on a dream that a school from the South could become a national powerhouse in a sport all but exclusive to the North. UF’s first senior lacrosse class also will be remembered as its first class of any kind.
“Coming in, I think we all knew it was going to be a great program,” said senior midfielder Brittany Dashiell, from Bel Air, Md. “This is Florida. Every program here is known to be a great program, so we knew lacrosse would become big. But this big? This fast? No, I don’t think so.”
That wide-eyed, rookie Class of 2013 was 24 strong when it arrived en masse. It’s been whittled now to 13, a baker’s dozen that has blazed a something-from-nothing trail that in the first three seasons included an ALC regular-season championship, a league tournament title, two NCAA berths and a stirring run to last season’s Final Four.
Virtually overnight, those milestones have become the standard of a program that had neither a facility, a playing field nor even assistant coach when this batch of young ladies signed on for the journey.
“Obviously, they are the foundation,” Florida coach Amanda O’Leary said. “What they’ve done, quite honestly, is extraordinary.”
They’re collective record is 60-16, including 34-4 the last two seasons, with shoot-for-stars goals for the upcoming postseason still before them.
Those who truly appreciate this winding-down run are the ones who were there at the beginning. O’Leary will keep a special place in her heart for the girls that took a chance. They embraced the challenge and accepted the responsibility of laying the groundwork that was O’Leary’s vision for the program.
No team trained like that first team.
“We needed to establish a work ethic and I’m sure those first few practices were quite a shock to them,” O’Leary said. “None of them had ever been to a college lacrosse practice and not [upperclassmen] in front of them saying, ‘It’ll get better, it’ll get easier,’ was very hard. They had no choice but to push through and push each other.”
Example: Where current team trained in the offseason with workouts of 10 120-yard sprints, that inaugural ’09 team did 18.
And think about the culture shock that awaited the girls from New York, New Jersey and Maryland when strength and conditioning coach Karin Werth first took them inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium for “Gator Mountains.”
Translation: sprint up 90 rows of bleachers.
Repeatedly. Sometimes carrying sledgehammers. Or chains.
“And because we were freshmen, of course there was other stuff,” said senior defender Sam Farrell, from Millersville, Md. “If, like, we missed a study hall and fooled around too much in the dorm, we ran extras ... and we ran a lot of extras.”
Goalkeeper Mikey Meagher: “Yeah, we were a little rambunctious at times.”
Yeah, this batch was unique compared to freshmen classes in other sports. O’Leary had to field a team immediately, so that meant -- BOOM! -- she needed 24 players in that first haul. The bonding among them was instantaneous and often a sight to behold.
“When they went out, it was all 24 of them going out,” O’Leary said. Malls, movies, dinners, wherever -- 24 strong -- and oftentimes coming and going on scooters, like a lighter version of Bike Week at Daytona.
“We traveled in packs,” Dashiell said. “They called us the ‘Scooter Brigade.” We all thought it was funny.”
When it came to lacrosse, though, things got serious.
The program’s first game was Feb. 20, 2010 against Jacksonville.
“Honestly, I really didn’t know what to expect,” O’Leary said. “I didn’t know if we’d be able to catch it, throw it or even stop a ball. I really didn’t know what we had. I just was hoping we’d be able to compete and play hard. They did that. There was a maturity about them when it came time to play and over these four years it’s really been something to watch.”
The Gators won that game 16-6 and have won a bunch since, including three wins in five games against Northwestern, winner of seven of the last eight national titles.
After today, comes the ALC Tournament next month in Baltimore, followed by the NCAA bracket. Along the way, O’Leary will savor every minute with this group to the max. Preferably, all the way to the Final Four again. Plus one.
Now, that would be the ideal senior sendoff.
“We helped build this program, so to slowly watch it come to an end, it’s weird, it’s scary and it’s sad because you’re going to leave so many friends you came here with,” said Meagher, out of Liverpool, N.Y. “But we’ll take so much away from this.”
They’ll leave so much behind, too.
“No matter what happens in the postseason, this is something I’ll always take personal pride in,” said Cullen, the program’s all-time scorer with 190 goals. “To not only play a [Division I] sport for four years, but be a part of a first class that really built something. In 10 or 20 years, Florida hopefully will still be be one of the best teams in the nation and I’ll look back and say, “Hey, that’s something I helped start.’ To me, that’s special.”