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Sophomore goaltender Mary-Sean Wilcox's emergence has helped the Gators move one win away from the Final Four.

Friday May 16, 2014Gators Have Thrived with Wilcox as Last Line of Defense

Sophomore goaltender Mary-Sean Wilcox's emergence has helped the Gators move one win away from the Final Four.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The process did not happen overnight. It was not until past the midseason point that Mary-Sean Wilcox took over as the Florida lacrosse team’s starting goaltender.

However, since the sophomore from Lutherville, Md., got the job, the results are undeniable.

The Gators have not lost. If they keep that streak intact Saturday against Northwestern, the No. 4-seed Gators (18-2) will earn the program’s second trip to the Final Four in its five-year history.

Wilcox’s emergence might have caught some off guard with fifth-year senior Cara Canington getting the bulk of playing time early in the season, but not Florida head coach Amanda O’Leary.

“We’ve known all along how good she is,’’ O’Leary said.

The numbers back up O’Leary the way Wilcox back-ends the Florida defense.

In 19 games – including eight consecutive starts since a 23-1 win over Stetson on March 26 – Wilcox is 10-0 with an 8.08 goals-against average. In those eight starts, six of Wilcox’s wins have come against teams ranked in the top 25, with two victories against the No. 5-seed Wildcats (13-6).

As Florida established itself among the nation’s premiere women’s lacrosse programs the past three seasons, Mikey Meagher was as consistent in the goal cage as the sun beating down on Donald R. Dizney Stadium this time of year.

Gators lacrosse team

Meagher had started 60 of Florida’s last 62 games entering the season. With her departure, Canington became the starter and posted an 8-2 record with an 8.48 GAA. Still, it was difficult to keep the talented Wilcox down the depth chart for long.

She was the future the moment she stepped on campus.

“Mary-Sean was one of the best goalies coming out of high school,’’ O’Leary said. “She is the type of player that as soon as she came on a recruiting visit, we were like, ‘we need to get this kid.’ She just had a tremendous personality and got along really well with the current players. We wanted her from the very beginning.”

The Gators had a unique advantage that made Wilcox’s decision easier than they might have expected.

“I went to look at other places, but nothing compared to the palm trees and sunshine,’’ Wilcox said.

Wilcox (No. 36, photo above) played sparingly as a freshman, logging 176 minutes in 11 games. She knew the competition she faced from Canington for the starter’s job would be stiff when the season opened.

Canington, another Maryland native, was the full-time starter in 2010 during the program’s inaugural season. She eventually gave way to Meagher and missed all of last season with an injury.

Both players said they view their competition as a friendly rivalry since they are good friends when not lugging around lacrosse sticks.

“I knew it would be a fight between Cara and I,’’ Wilcox said. “We’re both very good goalies. Last year we helped each other out as much as we could and this year we have done the same. It’s really who is seeing the ball the best is going to go in.”

For her part, Canington holds no grudges in sharing time with the younger Wilcox.

“We feed off each other. We are really, really competitive on the field but best friends off the field,’’ Canington said. “Right from the start I kind of took her under my wing. It just kind of blossomed from there.

“I heard she was good and I was excited to get another good goaltender in. I was excited to help her any way I could and to be pushed, because I want somebody to push me every day on the field, too.”

The set up has worked out well for Florida.

The Gators defeated Denver 19-8 on Sunday to advance to face seven-time national champion Northwestern. Florida has defeated the Wildcats twice in the past month, 13-12 on April 19 and 9-8 in the American Lacrosse Conference title game May 4.

Both games were at Northwestern, which will try to win an NCAA quarterfinal game on the road for the first time. Florida is 3-0 all-time at home against Northwestern, including a 22-4 victory in 2012 that stands as the worst loss of Wildcats coach Kelly Amonte Hiller’s career.

The Wildcats responded a few weeks later to knock off Florida for the ALC title.

Wilcox was at Notre Dame (Md.) Prep back then. She might be young and new to the postseason spotlight, but Wilcox has a clear grasp of the situation.

“There is a lot of pressure because it is a home game against a very difficult team,’’ she said. “It’s been two of the most insane games we have played. But I think it just makes us more prepared.”

Wilcox has been a steady force at stopping shots in what many expected to be a rebuilding season for Florida. However, her biggest contribution might be the energy she provides the defense.

The Gators trailed Northwestern 7-2 at halftime of the ALC championship game and Wilcox made some crucial stops in the second half with every goal at a premium.

But that was only part of the story. The intangibles Wilcox provides regularly, those plays that don’t show up in a box score, helped lift the Gators to one of the program’s most memorable victories.

“It was even more of what she did outside the goal cage, and her communication,’’ O’Leary said. “Our team thrives playing in front of her. They compete really hard because they know what a competitor she is inside that goal. That combination has worked really well for us.”

Canington understands what O’Leary is talking about.

“I’m definitely more of a technique-type person,’’ Canington said. “She shows her aggressiveness outside the cage. We each have different strengths and weaknesses. We try to help each other get better in each area.”

Both have come through at different times, but with another trip to the Final Four within reach, Wilcox has firmly taken control.

Not a bad place to be heading into the biggest game of the season.

“I worked really hard at the beginning of the season,’’ Wilcox said. “Cara and I are always helping each other. We just want the best goalie in. It’s been working out very well for our team.”


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