February 13, 2012

Season Preview (WD1): No. 5 Florida

by Rachel George | LaxMagazine.com

Kitty Cullen scored 77 goals last year despite faceing constant double teams.
© Greg Wall

Kitty Cullen reflected on all the Florida lacrosse team accomplished in the program’s second season. Following an NCAA quarterfinal loss to Duke, the Gators’ leading scorer talked about the history they made as a team of mostly sophomores.

Now, as they prepare to enter their third season, Cullen knows the secret is out on her and the Gators.

“It’s definitely going be a new challenge for us having to deal with now we kind of are the top,” Cullen said. “We have to deal with staying there instead of working your way to getting to the top as we did in the past two years.”

The Florida program is still young, but it starts the year with a veteran group that returns almost all of its starters. Add a highly touted group of freshmen, and it’s clear why expectations outside of Gainesville are starting to match those that coach Amanda O’Leary and the university administration had before the program played a game.

After a 16-4 finish in 2011, the Gators enter the season as a top-five team. That’s significant jump from No. 17 in the IWLCA poll, where they started the program’s second season last year.

Along the way, they won their first American Lacrosse Conference title, defeated eventual NCAA champion Northwestern and hosted and won the program’s first-ever NCAA tournament game. Florida became the fastest team to reach the IWLCA top 10, ascending as high as No. 2.

“We knew we could do it,” said junior goalkeeper Mikey Meagher. “But it was just a matter of, ‘Can we pull it off? Are we too panicky?’ A lot of people thought we were too young to do what we did.”

That’s not the case anymore. Now juniors, the class that built the foundation for the program looks to reach loftier goals — another conference regular season title, an ALC tournament title and, ultimately, an NCAA championship.

The Gators have the tools to do it. Cullen scored 77 goals last year despite facing double teams and usually the opponent’s best defender. All but one starter returns. (Janine Hillier transferred to Stony Brook in the offseason.) But even the starters who are back will face competition for spots.

Meagher received All-ALC second-team honors last season but is competing for her spot with Cara Canington, who was limited with a broken finger last season. Freshmen Nora Barry, Nicole Graziano, Sally Jentis and Shannon Gilroy (U.S. U19 team) will contribute and possibly start. Florida finally has depth that it has been working to build.

O’Leary has tempered expectations for the players. She would like them to accomplish the goals she set when she was hired in 2007, but they can’t do that if they don’t improve each day.

Going into the program’s third season, O’Leary thinks she has a team mature enough to do that.

“You hope that now they understand and comprehend the details of what it takes to make it to the final four,” she said, “because obviously we didn’t and we fell short.”

This article appears in the February issue of Lacrosse Magazine, the flagship publication of US Lacrosse. Join US Lacrosse and its 400,000-plus members today to start your subscription to LM. Follow LaxMagazine.com all season long, and check out the Gators' team page.

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