May 21, 2012

Florida's Fast Rise a Model for Women's Lacrosse

by Matt DaSilva | | Twitter

Tewaaraton Award finalist Brittany Dashiell spearheads a junior class that helped launch the Florida women's lacrosse program in 2010, made the NCAA quarterfinals in 2011 and this year became the fastest team in history to reach the final four.

© Jim Burgess

The University of Florida's ascension from startup to final four contender in its third year was the predominant topic Monday in the NCAA Division I women's lacrosse pre-championship conference call featuring the participating teams' head coaches.

"Florida has done an incredible job developing a new program, and I think they're the model that all universities that add lacrosse should look toward," said Syracuse head coach Gary Gait, whose fourth-seeded Orange (18-3) will face the top-seeded Gators (19-2) in the first semifinal Friday at Stony Brook. "It's really what women's lacrosse needed."

Florida dominated the powerful American Lacrosse Conference (ALC) to become the fastest team in history to advance to championship weekend. The Gators defeated defending NCAA champion Northwestern twice this season, including the conference championship game, and pummeled Penn State 15-2 in the NCAA quarterfinals Saturday. Tewaaraton Award finalist Brittany Dashiell and top scorer Kitty Cullen spearhead an experienced junior class that helped launch the Florida program in 2010.

"We had nothing to show them," said Gators head coach Mandee O'Leary. "They would come on recruiting visits, and we had no stadium, no tradition, nothing to show them. These young women were trailblazers. They bought into a dream."

But as O'Leary noted several times Monday, the full extent of that dream has yet to be realized.

"While we're proud of how far we've come, we know there's still work to be done," she said.

Role Reversal

Second-seeded Northwestern (19-2) will meet third-seeded Maryland (19-3) in Friday's second semifinal, a rematch of the last two NCAA championship games. The Wildcats have won six of the last seven national titles, their only loss coming to the Terps in 2010. On Friday, Maryland will play the role of avenger.

"Being in the situation where we lost to them in 2010, getting the opportunity to get back to that point, their motivation, you can see it on the field," said Northwestern head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller.

The Wildcats advanced to the NCAA semifinals with an 11-7 win over Duke, while the Terps earned a 17-11 win over Loyola.

Too Much Tumolo

Each of the four teams has a horse in the Tewaaraton Award race. Florida's Dashiell, Northwestern's Taylor Thornton, Maryland's Katie Schwarzmann and Syracuse's Michelle Tumolo are finalists, along with North Carolina's Becky Lynch.

Tumolo staked her claim to the trophy with an epic performance late in the Orange's NCAA quarterfinal win over North Carolina, a game in which Syracuse trailed by two goals with three minutes remaining. Her high-wire goal with five seconds left gave the Orange a 17-16 comeback victory. She also scored and assisted goals on Syracuse's previous two possessions to tie the game.

Gait's play-by-play of Tumolo's game-winner was almost as good as watching it. "We tied the game with 38 seconds left and won the draw control. Michelle took the ball and looked like she was just going to run out the clock. She looked pretty casual. We cleared the side and had set up a play earlier in a timeout with three minutes left to say, 'This is how we finish. This is what we want.' She looked up at the clock, realized she had to go now and with about 12 seconds left decided to start dodging — a split dodge into roll dodge, falling down, bouncer into the top left corner."

Gaga over Gilroy

While Florida's junior class has received most of the attention in its run to the final four, the instant impact of freshman midfielder Shannon Gilroy has not gone unnoticed. Gilroy, who recovered from offseason knee surgery to earn a starting spot, leads the team with 77 draw controls to go along with 39 goals.

"Anybody that knows Shannon knows what incredible work ethic she has," O'Leary said of Gilroy's speedy recovery. "She doesn't like to hear the word 'no.' She's an incredible piece to the puzzle."

Amonte Hiller cited Gilroy as the difference in the Gators' 14-7 victory over Northwestern in the ALC championship game May 5. Gilroy scored seven goals and snagged three draws.

"Our kid [Alyssa Leonard] on the draw was able to help us win the ALC championship game [against them last year], and it was the same for them this year," Amonte Hiller said. "Shannon was just fantastic in that game and has been in the two NCAA games too. You can't underestimate the power of possession."

On the Growth of the Game

With record crowds expected at Stony Brook's LaValle Stadium and Sunday's championship game being broadcast live on ESPNU (8 p.m.), Maryland head coach Cathy Reese waxed nostalgic on Monday's conference call. She and Amonte Hiller were teammates at Maryland in 1995-96, a two-year span in which the Terps did not lose a game.

"Our national championship games were held at Lehigh. There were maybe a hundred people in the stands, and you could pick out your parents," Reese said. "Now you look up and we're drawing 10,000-plus fans for this championship. It's great to see new programs like Northwestern, like Florida that started from scratch. Now look -- they're both final four programs here."

The Next Florida?

Asked who could be the next team to make a Florida-like foray into the college women's lacrosse elite, O'Leary pointed to USC and Michigan, who will debut in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

Both programs employed the Florida model, landing head coaches early in their development and allowing a two-year window to recruit before taking the field. USC tabbed former Northwestern assistant Lindsey Munday and Michigan lured former Florida assistant Jenny Ulehla away from Gainesville.

"They hired tremendous coaches, have some great talent coming in and have full support of administration," O'Leary said. "There are quite a few programs on the rise we're going to see make an immediate impact."

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