April 14, 2011

Stunner in the Swamp: Florida Deals Northwestern First ALC Loss Since 2004

by Rachel George | LaxMagazine.com

Kitty Cullen evades her Northwestern defender Thursday during No. 6 Florida's 13-11 upset win over No. 2 Northwestern before 1,518 fans at Donald R. Dizney Stadium in Gainesville, Fla. Cullen scored six goals to up her season total 67.

© Jim Burgess/UF Communications

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Game Preview: Florida welcomes Northwestern to the Swamp

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – If this game was a measuring stick a year ago, it showed how far Florida had to go to contend with the best collegiate lacrosse teams.

In the program's first season, Northwestern showed the Gators exactly where they stood. A roster full of freshman went to Evanston and got overwhelmed and embarrassed.

If this game was a measuring stick Thursday, it showed how far the program has come.

No. 6 Florida (13-1, 4-0 ALC) upset No. 2 Northwestern 13-11 at Donald R. Dizney Stadium, giving the young program its biggest win and clinching the No. 1 seed for the American Lacrosse Conference championship.

The Wildcats (12-1, 2-1), meanwhile, lost for the first time in the ALC since 2004 and lost a game for the first time since falling to Maryland in last year's NCAA championship.

"We, quite honestly, got embarrassed last year against this team," Florida coach Mandee O'Leary said of the Gators' 19-5 loss. "They were just so much better than us.

"You look at the turnaround of our program, you have to credit our players, our support staff, our coaching, my assistant coaches," she added. "It puts a big smile on your face when you walk off the field knowing what they played like last year and now what they played like tonight."

A Florida team that trailed 14-0 at halftime a year ago, and by as many as 15 in the game, was aggressive from the start, trailed only in the first two minutes and weathered a second-half comeback that got Northwestern to within one.

Trailing 9-4 at halftime, Northwestern had runs of three consecutive goals twice in the second half to cut into the lead. Shannon Smith's wrap-around with Florida goalkeeper Mikey Meagher out of position cut the score to 12-11 with 6:37 remaining.

Florida's Kitty Cullen, the nation's leading scorer, iced the win with her sixth goal of the night.

"They're an unbelievable team and for us to come out and get this win means everything," said Cullen, who has 67 goals this season. "It just kind of shows us, 'Hey, we could do it. This is what we worked for.'"

It is because of Cullen, in part, that Florida is much improved. As a freshman, she said she struggled with shot selection and finished with 31 goals.

Thursday's win was her fourth game with six or more goals, and she has not scored fewer than three in any game this year.

"Kitty is fantastic," said Meagher, who finished with 10 saves. "Her growth from last year to this year is unbelievable. She's a phenomenal player and deserves all the credit in the world."

For Northwestern, the loss was frustrating in the little things that were lacking. Smith leads the country by averaging more than five points per game but was contained much of the night.

While the Wildcats held the edge on draw controls, 17-9, they got beat on ground balls (16-10). They made four of nine free-position shots, a total that included going 0-for-4 in the first half.

"I just see the mistakes that we've been making pretty much all season have been exposed," said Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte Hiller. "It's all the little things that make a team great."

On Thursday, Florida did those things. As the Gators stormed the field even before the clock ran out, a standing-room only crowd of 1,518 gave them a standing ovation.

In two years, O'Leary had built something at Florida that didn't exist before. In her 14 seasons at Yale, the accomplished coach had four teams win 13 or more games. From top to bottom, this is the best team she's coached, O'Leary said.

"This team is special," she said. "Last year, we knew they were a fantastic team, they had a lot of talent, but they needed to mature."

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