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Thursday May 2, 2013Not Exactly Lacking for Lax in the Sunshine State

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Like most elite athletes involved in youth sports, Jamie Reeg used to bounce around to summer camps for development and exposure.

Reeg, a lacrosse standout from Atlantis, Fla., attended several camps, including Johns Hopkins, one of the blue-blood spots of the sport and in the lacrosse-loving city of Baltimore no less.

She remembers some of the cockeyed looks she got when asked where she was from.

As in, "You're from Florida?"

"Everyone just kind of assumed I was no good," Reeg said. "For valid reasons, I guess. I mean, they were all from Maryland."

Indeed, Maryland is the epicenter of the sport and, not so coincidentally, Johns Hopkins is the site of this week's American Lacrosse Conference Tournament, where UF has a bye through the first round and will face either Ohio State or Johns Hopkins in Friday's second round at 4 p.m.

Reeg, a senior defender and All-American, will be there with her UF teammates, but the mention of Florida doesn't figure to get many cockeyed looks this week; not with the Gators (16-1) seeded first in the tournament to go with their crown as defending champions of the event and shareholders of three straight ALC regular-season titles.

Cockeyed looks? No.

The stink eye? Yeah, maybe.

"Now, we're one of those elite teams, too," said Reeg, a senior and member of UF's original signing class.

With the vast majority of the sport's players hailing from prime-cut lacrosse country in the Northeast, more than half of the Florida lacrosse roster (16 of 31 players) is from Maryland alone. So it's little wonder the Gators, in just their fourth year of existence, have gotten so good so fast.

They've not only built a pipeline to Baltimore and its vicinity, but Coach Amanda O'Leary has pried some of the nation's best prospects out of the Old Line State and down to the Sunshine State.

That said, there's some satisfaction for the two players -- count 'em, just two -- O'Leary signed from Florida to attend Florida when the program launched in 2010. At the time, UF was basically trailing the lacrosse tradition field by the metaphoric equivalent of, say, 10 goals.

The Gators, obviously, have rallied with a vengeance.

"When I saw what Florida was going to do with lacrosse, the commitment the school was putting behind the sport, I saw a great opportunity," said defender Krista Grabher. "You just knew it was going to be an up-and-coming program. I feel lucky to have been a part of it."

The state has some well-established pockets of outstanding lacrosse, including Vero Beach, the Palm Beach area and some scattered schools in Jacksonville. The sport has grown to the point where the Florida High School Activities Association sanctions 130 high school lacrosse programs.

The player pool wasn't so defined a few years ago.

Grabher, for example, played on a traveling club comprised of a melting pot of players from such non-traditional lacrosse states as Texas, Georgia and Florida. They called themselves X Club.

"We were the outcasts," she said.

Exactly no one at the UF complex views Reeg or Grabher as such now. Reeg has started every game the last three years for the Gators and been a defensive force around the goal. Grabher has been a key reserve for the team the last three seasons.

And the incoming 2013 freshman class will add two more players from the state of Florida.

O'Leary said the lacrosse surge in the state -- other Florida universities have added lacrosse or are exploring the possibility -- can be traced to transplanted families from the north and parents who start club teams.

More girls playing mean more prospects on the way.

Take Grabher, for example. She grew up in a tennis family -- her mother was a professional, her father an instructor -- but she grabbed a lacrosse stick around the age of 12 and soon she was swinging that instead of a racket.

"It was awkward at first, but I got used to it," Grabher said. "Now, holding a tennis racket feels weird."

For the lacrosse purists along the eastern seaboard, the notion of Florida lacrosse has a weird sort of feel to it. Sort of like when Canadians had to get used to Tampa and Miami getting professional hockey teams.

But times are changing.

"It's not as unique as it used to be," O'Leary said of home-grown Gators.

And neither is the notion (or reality) of lacrosse hotbed programs losing games to that team from, you know, down there.  

"I think we're starting to get under their skin a little bit," Grabher said with a smile. "But we don't mind."

 

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