April 14, 2011

Florida Welcomes Northwestern to the Swamp

by J. Jude Hazard | LaxMagazine.com

Caroline Cochran transferred from perennial power Virginia to upstart Florida, with the Gators enjoying unprecedented success now as a second-year program.

© UF Communications

Click here for Rachel George's live blog from the Northwestern-Florida ALC women's lacrosse showdown in Gainesville.

Two years ago, Caroline Cochran made a big decision to transfer from perennial powerhouse Virginia to join upstart Florida, which was laying the groundwork for its inaugural 2010 women's lacrosse season. Now a junior attacker for the sixth-ranked Gators, that decision is looking pretty good.

"We have such great chemistry on and off the field," Cochran said. "We all went through this tough long ride with each other for the past two years and I think that’s made us stronger as a team."

The Gators (12-1, 3-0 ALC) have won 12 games in a row in just the program's second season and have ascended into the IWLCA top 10 faster than any team since the inception of the poll in 1988. On Thursday, they'll draw undefeated conference foe and second-ranked Northwestern in Gainesville at 6:30 p.m.

Cochran is the most experienced player on a team otherwise comprised of freshmen and sophomores. Florida is led offensively by sophomore Kitty Cullen, who goes into Thursday's game with a nation's-best 4.69 goals per game. In addition to her tremendous offensive contributions during games, Cochran said that Cullen's talent also helps the team in practice.

"She really helps our defense," Cochran said. "When you get to play against her every single day, it only makes you better."

Cochran said that the team's chemistry translates into a stress-free environment in practice, which helps the players work hard together while still having fun.

"I’m really happy about all the success we’ve been having this year," she added. "We definitely talked about these goals when we first came here. That was definitely one of [head coach Mandee O'Leary]'s draws. She said she wanted to compete and play for a champshionship."

The Gators face a big test on Thursday when they host the Wildcats. Both teams enter the game undefeated in American Lacrosse Conference play, and Thursday's matchup could go a long way in deciding the conference standings.

"Florida has been having a terrific year. They’re very well coached down there," Wildcats junior Shannon Smith said. "I think they can be a great challenge and we’re really looking forward to it."

Smith is another top scorer in the country, ranking eighth nationally in goals per game and third in assists per game.

Northwestern (12-0, 2-0 ALC) knows a thing or two about building a new program. The Wildcats have gone on to become a dynasty since reviving the program in 2002. Northwestern has competed in the last six NCAA championship games and won five consecutive titles from 2005 to 2009 before falling to Maryland in the 2010 final.

A key to the team's success, Smith said, is staying competitive with each other and evaluating their own play after each game.

"We focus on being a blue-collar team out there," she said. "We focus on getting those ground balls, the draw controls. We focus on those little things and that mental toughness."

Northwestern is embarking on a mini road trip with conference games at Florida on Thursday and at Johns Hopkins on Saturday. The Wildcats conclude conference play against Ohio State next week.

"This weekend is exciting," Smith said. "We need to be successful on Thursday."

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