Most second-year Division I athletic programs are immersed in growing pains. But for the fledgling women's lacrosse team at the University of Florida, the only pain to speak of is the kind they've been inflicting on opponents across the nation.
This past weekend, the squad accomplished a remarkable feat for a collegiate unit in only its sophomore year.
Guided by heralded coach Amanda O'Leary, the top-seeded Gators finished second in the American Lacrosse Conference tournament in Nashville, Tenn., barely missing out on the championship in a 10-9 loss to No. 2 Northwestern after holding an 8-5 lead in last Sunday's final. But that finish was good enough to earn an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament as the No. 4 overall seed and the right to host 13th-seeded Stanford at 1 p.m. May 14 in Gainesville.
That the team nearly won the ALC tournament speaks volumes about the grit and talent of a group of young women who never imagined they would be playing lacrosse in Florida. They grew up envisioning themselves chasing championships for tradition-rich lacrosse powers in the Northeast, only to be lured by the challenge of starting a new championship tradition at the school from scratch.
"We had nothing," O'Leary said. "We had no building. We had no tradition."
In 2007, she and athletic director Jeremy Foley could only sell the recruits on buying into a dream -- a dream with dirt, because that's all there was for a program just under construction.
Today, members of the team are recognized and stopped all over campus by well-wishers, as a genuine lacrosse buzz pervades the school. O'Leary and her team regularly pack in big crowds, selling out the 1,500-seat Donald R. Dizney Stadium at every conference game. The team ranks third in women's lacrosse attendance nationally, and even drew a standing-room-only throng for an April victory over Northwestern.
I had a tremendous experience at Yale and was able to work with the best and the brightest. But I was looking for something a little different, and Florida offered that -- a tremendous opportunity as a coach to work at a premier institution in a premier athletic department. It was a very easy decision for myself and my family. It was an opportunity that would probably come once in a lifetime.” -- Florida coach Amanda O'Leary
Foley had told O'Leary he couldn't build her the Taj Mahal, but it's pretty close by lacrosse standards. Ringed by stately red brick walls and palm trees, the facility is the only stand-alone women's collegiate lacrosse complex in the country. It's a sprawling, lush, $15 million home that features a playing field, a practice field, a lacrosse building that houses staff offices, spacious locker rooms for home and visiting teams and a state-of-the-art training room.
Two dozen smiling, wide-eyed members of the first lacrosse team were welcomed by Foley at a grand unveiling Aug. 16, 2009. He told them how much it meant "for you guys to come down here and buy that dream and say, 'You know something, we could have gone to a lot of different places, but we wanted to be Gators. We wanted to be part of something special. We want to put our footprints in the sand.'"
Adding the footprint of the sport made complete sense to UF officials. Lacrosse is one of the fastest growing team sports in the country, growing at the youth level by more than 138 percent in the past decade and becoming increasingly popular in Florida. So amid a climate of budget cutbacks for many programs, UF decided to add another sport to its collection of athletic crown jewels.
Foley told each recruit she wasn't just coming to Florida to play lacrosse but to win championships -- part of a long Gators tradition for their top-tier teams in such entrenched sports as football, basketball, baseball, swimming and track and field.
And the key to making it all happen was O'Leary.
Her energetic style and voluminous record -- including a 2005 election to the Lacrosse Hall of Fame -- made all the difference when she visited the homes of young national high school stars who had previously pictured themselves playing for such hallowed programs as Johns Hopkins, Maryland or any of the Ivy League universities.
Foley hired O'Leary away from Yale University in 2007. Her resume was too hard to resist: Leading the Bulldogs for 14 seasons, she had won 70 percent of her games; led the school to two NCAA championships; set a single-season record with 14 wins, which she subsequently matched in two other seasons; and her squad finished as one of the Ivy League's top-three teams 11 times.
She was just as much a force as a player at Temple University. She was a two-time All-American midfielder who led the Owls to a 19-0 record and the NCAA championship in 1988, earning MVP honors along the way.
After accomplishing so much at Yale, she was ready for a new challenge, and building a program at UF was a chance she didn't want to pass up.
"I had a tremendous experience at Yale and was able to work with the best and the brightest," she said. "But I was looking for something a little different, and Florida offered that -- a tremendous opportunity as a coach to work at a premier institution in a premier athletic department. It was a very easy decision for myself and my family. It was an opportunity that would probably come once in a lifetime."
In its first season in 2010, the team posted a record of 10-8 against the 21st-toughest schedule in the nation. The Gators became only the sixth school in Division I women's lacrosse history to win 10 games its first season, a showing highlighted by victories over No. 14 Penn State and No. 20 Johns Hopkins.
This season, they have come of age, going 15-3 overall, including an 11-0 home record that bodes well for a first-round NCAA match against Stanford. The ALC recently bestowed two dozen honors on team members, including naming O'Leary coach of the year and sophomore midfielder Kitty Cullen conference player of the year.
Cullen, who led the nation in goals with 71, was highly recruited by Johns Hopkins, Maryland and North Carolina. But after meeting O'Leary and visiting UF, she was sold. Cullen gives credit to her coach for making the difference.
"She's just unbelievable," Cullen said. "She was working and preparing for us to come here for two years. All the time and effort she puts into this is just amazing. She was a great player herself, and now she's just a tremendous coach."
Though UF hadn't been on her radar, Cullen fell in love with the campus on a visit and was drawn to O'Leary's vision and the challenge of building something new.
"It takes a special group of girls to come here as a first class and come here not having a team, not having a facility and not knowing what would happen," she said. "But I think we all knew we were going to build history and do something amazing."
Added Caroline Cochrane, a junior transfer from Virginia: "We've exceeded all our expectations. We knew we'd be good. But to be doing all this in our second year has been a blast."