GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- In a team meeting last week, Coach Amanda O’Leary asked for a show of hands of the Florida lacrosse players who entered the season expecting to win a fourth straight American Lacrosse Conference regular-season title.
“I wanted to raise mine, just to seem like I was optimistic,” junior midfielder Nora Barry said. “But I’m not sure I really believed it.”
That was O’Leary’s point. The notion the program was about to take a step back was pretty much accepted in the clubhouse. For good reason, too. Last May, the Gators said goodbye to 13 seniors who forged the foundation of a program that rocketed from infancy to national prominence in just four seasons.
While the 2014 roster was fortified by a talented 11-player freshmen class, replacing the likes of Kitty Cullen, Sam Farrell, Brittany Dashiell and Mikey Meagher was daunting.
Right, ladies? Put 'em up if you disagree.
“I sort of said it in jest, but I think they understood,” O’Leary recalled with a grin. “They needed to think about just how far we’ve come and the expectations we’ve exceeded.”
All teams go into a season with a goal of reaching that ultimate destination, but all coaches will tell you the journey -- with all its bumps, turns and pitstops -- is what defines where each team eventually arrives.
So it was that question that O’Leary put to her Gators in the wake of their 13-12 win at Northwestern two weeks ago that gave Florida the outright ALC crown and No. 1 seed in the league tournament this weekend at Evanston, Ill. The Gators (15-2), ranked third in the nation, have a bye through Thursday’s opening round and will face either fourth-seeded Penn State (10-6) or fifth-seeded Johns Hopkins (14-3) in Friday’s semifinal match at 5:30 p.m.
The ALC Tournament title game is set for Sunday at noon.
“We’re very confident right now,” junior middie Shannon Gilroy said. “I think we may have a little chip on our shoulder because of where we were and the fact that now people will be gunning for us.”
It was Gilroy, the Tewaaraton Award nominee for the nation’s best female lacrosse player and team leader with 75 goals and 91 points, who sat in O’Leary’s office after the 2013 season ended and tried to convince her coach the ’14 squad would be better than anticipated.
“She told me I’d be surprised,” O’Leary said. “I told her she was probably right, but we had to see how everything played out.”
The journey began in earnest on Feb. 8.
That was the day -- less than three months ago -- Florida opened the season at defending national champion North Carolina and played like a team in utter rebuilding mode. The Tar Heels blasted the Gators 20-8.
Given the internal bar the Gators had seemingly set for themselves -- remember those hands that eventually did not go up? -- the result was hardly unexpected. But that didn’t mean the outcome was acceptable.
Their first practice back from Chapel Hill, N.C., O’Leary and assistants Erica LaGrow and Michelle Tumolo met with the players and promptly put them through a brutal practice.
“A lot of running,” Gilroy said. “A lot of full-field stuff.”
Message: Coming together wasn’t going to be easy; wasn’t supposed to be, either.
But it would happen.
Three weeks later, the Gators went on a rare two-game road trip to the Northeast. By then, impact freshmen such as defenders Caroline Fitzgerald and Taylor Bresnahan and attackers Sammi Burgess and Mollie Stevens were well into their rookie campaigns. Roles and rotations had been defined.
The first game was at No. 15 Stony Brook, which UF trounced 14-1. Then came the bus ride from New York down I-95 to Baltimore and a date at No. 13 Loyola.The adversity gods added their own touch.
Seven inches of snow.
“It wasn’t an ideal situation,” Barry said. “But we were tiered together for something we had to get through together.”
After the field was plowed, the sun-tanned girls in orange and blue ran through and around Loyola, erasing a four-goal deficit and stealing a 14-13 victory.
“A turning point for us,” O’Leary said.
UF’s only loss since was a 17-12 setback at Syracuse, currently No. 2 in the nation. Along the way, the Gators have carved out an identity different from the run-and-gun dodge teams of recent years. This version of Florida relies a lot more on one another, eschewing one-on-one attack match-ups with more passing, more opportunistic scoring.
Whatever self-imposed ceiling this team might have has a huge hole in it now.
“I think we became determined not to settle for mediocrity,” O’Leary said. “And I don’t think they would say they’ve accomplished everything they’ve set out to accomplish. They’re too competitive. And now they’ve got a taste of it.”
If you saw it coming, raise your hand.