UF lacrosse tries to make good on promise

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- All Amanda O’Leary had to sell was a promise.

Florida’s lacrosse coach had a University of Florida shirt in 2007, but little else as she began recruiting players for the Gators’ new program, which wasn’t scheduled to begin play for nearly three years. No facility. No stadium. No equipment. Just a promise that the Gators would eventually compete for a national championship.

"We had nothing to show them," O’Leary remembered. "They would come on their recruiting visits and we had no stadium, we had no tradition, we had nothing to show them.

"They basically bought into something."

But few if any of the 24 members of O’Leary’s inaugural signing class believed they’d be competing this quickly for a national championship. New athletic programs need years and years to become established, but Florida has accelerated that process and is one game away from playing for a national championship in just its third season.

The Gators play Syracuse at 5:30 p.m. ET Friday at LaValle Stadium on the campus of Stony Brook (N.Y.) University. A victory would put them in Sunday’s title game against either Northwestern or Maryland.

"It definitely took a huge leap of faith for my class to be the first program, be the first girls that came here, but it also made us a lot more special," said junior Kitty Cullen, who leads the top-ranked Gators (19-2) with 68 points and is second with 45 goals. "Mandy really recruited a special group of kids to come here who all had the same dream in mind and it’s amazing that we’ve been able to achieve it."

Florida is just the fifth women’s lacrosse program since 1982 to qualify for the NCAA tournament within its first three seasons. The Gators, who reached the postseason in 2011 as well, are the only one to earn the No. 1 seed and just the second to reach the final four (North Carolina in 1998). That’s a meteoric rise for a program that didn’t even exist until June 14, 2006.

Little more than a year later, the school hired O’Leary, who won an NCAA title as a player at Temple in 1988 and as an assistant coach at Maryland in 1992. O’Leary had spent the previous 14 seasons as Yale’s head coach, leading the Bulldogs to the NCAA tournament in 2003 and 2007.

That resume certainly helped in recruiting. It was easier to sell UF’s yet-to-be-established program as a proven coach. Other advantages O’Leary had were her budget and the fact that she didn’t have a team to coach. She was able to be on the road recruiting more, and she spent most of that time in the talent-rich Northeast, where lacrosse is popular.

Surprisingly, getting players to agree to come to Gainesville to start a program wasn’t a tough sell. The weather helped -- those Northeastern kids jumped at a chance to get away from frigid winters -- but so did the overall strength of UF’s athletic program.

"All the other athletic programs are amazing," Cullen said. "Women’s tennis [just won] the national championship. All the other sports always excel here at Florida, and you kind of just knew that they were going to be the same thing with lacrosse."

The success came pretty quickly. One month after playing its first game, UF defeated No. 17 New Hampshire 15-3 for the program’s first victory over a ranked opponent. The Gators went 10-8 in 2010, becoming just the sixth lacrosse program in NCAA Division I history to have 10 or more victories in its first season.

In 2011, the Gators beat seven ranked teams, including upsetting No. 2 Northwestern to hand the Wildcats their first regular-season American Lacrosse Conference loss in seven years. Florida was ranked as high as No. 2 , won 14 consecutive regular-season games, and eventually reached the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament before falling to Duke.

This season Florida won the ALC regular season and tournament titles -- beating top-ranked Northwestern in the ALC tournament title game -- and beat Albany and No. 13 Penn State in the NCAA tournament to reach Friday’s semifinal.

"Just being in the situation, in the final four, it’s unreal. Absolutely unreal," junior Carolina Chesterman said. “Mandy said when we were being recruited here, 'You know, one day we’re going to be good guys. I promise.'

"I believed Mandy when she said it. Obviously we still have a ways to go but it’s great how far we’ve come and all the hard work we’ve put in just to be in this situation."