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Florida's women's lacrosse program has roots in Maryland

Four years ago when Amanda O'Leary was recruiting her first class at Florida, it wasn't a tough sell. The chance to play lacrosse at a good academic institution with a long history of athletic success and good weather never is.

But committing to the Gators and a new program did require a small leap of faith. Come here if you want to win championships, Kitty Cullen remembers athletic director Jeremy Foley telling her.

They came, mostly from the Northeast, where more-established lacrosse powers recruited them, and Florida lived up to its end of the deal.

The scene that unfolded recently brought to life all that O'Leary and the administration asked players to believe before a program existed.

The Gators beat then-No. 2 Northwestern last week, earning the program's biggest win and a share of the American Lacrosse Conference title in its second season. They went on to beat Vanderbilt last Sunday, finish the ALC schedule unbeaten and earn their first conference title in just the second year of the program.

That Florida beat traditional power Northwestern — which won five consecutive NCAA titles before losing to Maryland in the NCAA title game last year — shows how far the program has come.

"We didn't have a facility. We had nothing. We had no tradition," O'Leary said after the win. "And Jeremy would sit down and say, 'You sort of have to buy into our dream. We're going to build you a facility. We're going to provide you with all the opportunities to be successful but you have to believe that we're going to do it.' "

In June 2006, when Florida announced it would be adding women's lacrosse as its 21st sport, administrators relied heavily on their experience in adding women's soccer in the 1990s.

Building relationships early was key in recruiting so UF hired O'Leary in June 2007, more than two years before Florida would play a game. The early lead time allowed O'Leary and her staff to land the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, one that included 17 players from Maryland.

Partly because of logistical reasons and also to put lacrosse on par with its other sports, UF built a separate lacrosse facility. Ground-breaking on Dizney Stadium — which Lynda Tealer, senior associate athletics director for administration, said cost around $4 million — came two months before O'Leary's first recruits signed with the school.

The University Athletic Association fully funded the program, giving women's lacrosse the maximum number of scholarships allowed (12).

"The point really was, OK, if we're going to add lacrosse, we don't want it to be a 10-year sort of slow-growing kind of experience,' " said Tealer, who was instrumental in researching adding another sport and getting the lacrosse program started.

"If we were going to add a sport, let's put it on equal footing with all the other programs here."

At Florida, that equal footing comes with an expectation of winning.

Before a standing-room only crowd, the Gators beat Jacksonville to win their inaugural game last season. But with a roster full of freshmen facing more experienced teams, losses inevitably followed.

Florida traveled to Northwestern for the final game of the regular season and fell to 9-7 after an embarrassing 19-5 loss.

"We stepped on the field and everyone just froze because we were so afraid," Cullen said this week.

Florida then beat Johns Hopkins in the conference tournament before losing to Vanderbilt to finish the season 10-8.

No one could point to a specific turning point, but Cullen said the players realized in their postseason win that this year could be special.

It has been. Florida lost its season opener, a 10-9 overtime defeat to North Carolina, and hasn't lost since. The Gators' have won 14 in a row and clinched the No. 1 seed in the ALC tournament, which begins May 5 in Nashville.

The Gators finished their home schedule 11-0 and have beaten six ranked teams.

Along the way, they became the fastest-rising program to enter the IWLCA's top 10 since the poll's inception in 1988, landing at No. 10 on March 14.

"They've come just a far way in just a short amount of time," said Sheehan Stanwick Burch, an analyst for CBS Sports Network and contributor to LaxMagazine.com.

"I think they're showing all the great signs. I don't think anyone would have expected them to have such a great start," Burch added. "It's still amazing."

Maturing from last season has been the key, they all agreed. A roster with no seniors and 26 underclassmen has learned to become more disciplined, goalkeeper Mikey Meagher said. After a season together, they've learned each other's tendencies and developed chemistry on and off the field.

Florida's coaching staff has helped. O'Leary came to Florida carrying an impressive resume, with a 162-65 record in 14 seasons at Yale. A former All-American at Temple and World Cup winner, O'Leary was inducted into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 2005.

Her assistants — Erica LaGrow and Caitlyn McFadden — are equally impressive. Both members of the U.S national team, LaGrow earned All-ACC honors at North Carolina before coming to UF in 2008 and McFadden cleaned up in national awards last year in leading Maryland to an NCAA title.

As the team has improved, no one has made a more obvious sophomore leap than Cullen. The Rockville native scored six goals against Northwestern, bringing her season total to a nation's-best 67. That's more than double her freshman total of 31.

"Kitty has really come into her own," Burch said. "She's the type of players just everyone would love to have on their team."

Like the rest of her teammates, Cullen was in awe of Florida's win over Northwestern, which then lost to Johns Hopkins last Saturday. The team that scared the Gators last season left Gainesville with its first ALC loss since 2004.

Now they look ahead to a regular-season finale on May 1 at Cornell after finals and the ALC tournament. O'Leary won't look beyond that, but the chance to make more history is there for the Gators. The ALC doesn't receive an automatic bid to the 16-team NCAA tournament this year, but Florida's built an impressive resume that should put the Gators in position for one of the eight at-large bids, Burch said.

"We've got a long road ahead of us," O'Leary said.

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