When Sam Farrell visited the University of Florida on her women's lacrosse recruiting trip three years ago, there wasn't much to see.
No lacrosse facility. No locker rooms. No team. No tradition. Coach Amanda O'Leary didn't even have an assistant coach.
Nevertheless, the Severna Park graduate did see a bright future for lacrosse in Gainesville.
"They had a plan and a dream, and they just asked us to trust them," Farrell said of O'Leary and Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley, "so seeing their plan and having faith in them and trusting that that was going to happen was all we had to do. We all just came in and trusted them, and we exceeded our expectations, for sure."
In just three years, Farrell and the many other players from her recruiting class — including 10 from Baltimore-area high schools — who stuck it out through a particularly challenging freshman season have the Gators at the top of Division I women's lacrosse. Ranked No. 1, they are the No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament and will meet No. 4 Syracuse in the national semifinals at 5:30 p.m. Friday at Stony Brook, N.Y.
The Gators (19-2) have won 15 straight games, including two over defending national champion Northwestern, once for the American Lacrosse Conference tournament title. They sealed their trip to the final four with a 15-2 quarterfinal win over No. 15 Penn State last weekend.
"It's such a great experience to see how much our team has grown since freshman year," junior Brittany Dashiell (John Carroll) said, "and just knowing we're the ones who started the program, our freshman class. We always had the goal to get to the final four and eventually the national championship, and it's just an amazing feeling to work through three years of hard work and get to where we area now."
While four other programs — Duke, North Carolina, Northwestern and Syracuse — have made it to the women's Division I final four in their third season, none was seeded first and none won a title. The Tar Heels reached the final four in their second season, but Northwestern is the youngest team to win a national title, taking the crown in 2005, its fourth year of varsity status after the Wildcats spent nine years as a club program.
Although Florida has had a club program, it remained separate when O'Leary was hired and began recruiting for the varsity team. She had a $17 million commitment to a new facility as well as all the amenities a Division I athlete could want; that, combined with the warm weather, the opportunity to play as freshmen and the chance for quick success, helped persuade 17 Maryland girls to head south as part O'Leary's first recruiting class of 24.
Dashiell is one of five finalists for the Tewaaraton Award, presented annually to the best player in the game. She ranks third on the team in scoring after Kitty Cullen (McDonogh) and Ashley Bruns (Mount Hebron). Farrell, Kayla Stolins (Loch Raven), Haydon Judge (St. Mary's) and Emily Dohony (Hereford) start on defense, while Cara Canington (C. Milton Wright), Colby Rhea (McDonogh), Rachel Smith (Mount Hebron) and the team's only senior, Caroline Cochran (St. Mary's), have all seen action.
"They provide the bulk of our program," O'Leary said. "When I hit the road recruiting, it was one of the first places I went to because it had such a strong tradition of having great lacrosse players, that Baltimore area. It was pretty easy to decide where I wanted to start. For our players, they've developed, they've worked hard. It's a testament to their high school coaches and their high school programs."
Many of the Baltimore girls knew each other from club lacrosse. Mostly they played against each other for Sky Walkers, M&D or CC Lax, and at least nine of them arrived in Gainesville with a club teammate.
Having so many players from home helped the young group make it through that difficult freshman season, when there was no one to lead the way, no older teammate to turn to for guidance during their first time away from home.
Dashiell said she sought advice from older friends in other Division I programs, such as former John Carroll teammate Ally Carey at Vanderbilt.
"They were telling me to stick through it for at least a year," Dashiell said, "because it's always hard for any D-I athlete that first fall, because it's such a big change from high school. They were like, you've just got to stick through it — it'll be worth it when you get to [spring] season and you can really see if you like it or not."
Some players left the program, and others considered leaving.
"Freshman year, we had no leadership," Cullen said. "We didn't know what we were doing. We were crying all the time. We didn't know if we would ever make it. I think all of that stuff that we worked through that first year has made us so mentally tough. Coming in last year and doing so well our sophomore year really set high expectations for this year. Making the final four was a huge goal of ours."
Now they've reached that goal. They have their own lacrosse facility, the 1,500-seat Donald R. Dizney Stadium, completed just before the first recruiting class arrived. They have assistant coaches, including Caitlin McFadden, the 2010 Tewaaraton winner from Maryland. And they're rapidly building their own tradition.
"Everyone had expectations that we would be a top team very quickly, but I don't think anyone expected us to make it to the final four our junior year," said Farrell, the Severna Park grad. "It's just so awesome to know that when we graduate and when we look back 10, 20 years from now, we'll know that we started this program and we helped bring it to where it is. To know all the hard work our first two years paid off now, and hopefully next year, as seniors, it will just be really rewarding for us."