February 9, 2013

Florida Seniors Key Comeback Win Over UNC

by Henry Gargan | LaxMagazine.com | Live Blog Replay

Florida senior goalie Mikey Meagher finished with nine saves, including a point-blank stop on UNC's Kara Cannizzaro as the Gators defense shut out the Tar Heels in the second half.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — In its four-year history, the Florida's women's lacrosse program has done nearly everything that could have been expected of it.

Last year the Gators advanced to the semifinal round of the NCAA tournament and posted the team's best-ever record. They took down powerhouses like Northwestern in the regular season and in the ALC title game, and went undefeated in the conference.

But despite Florida's increasingly dominant presence in college lacrosse, North Carolina remained a thorn in the Gators' side.

For the past three years, the Tar Heels have handed Florida early-season losses, leaving UNC one of the few unconquered programs left on Florida's radar.

On Saturday, though, the Gators, ranked No. 1 in the preseason by Lacrosse Magazine, earned the program's first-ever victory against No. 5 UNC in a 5-3 win at North Carolina's Fetzer Field, overcoming a 3-0 first-half deficit by way of five unanswered goals.

It was an auspicious start to a final run at a national championship for Florida's heralded senior class. And it was the seniors, primarily, who led the charge Saturday afternoon.

All in their final year at Florida, Gabi Wiegand, Ashley Bruns and Brittany Dashiell were the scorers that allowed the Gators to draw even and then take the lead.

"It's amazing. To finally beat them felt like an incredible accomplishment and a great start to our season," said Dashiell, who recorded a goal and an assist. "I think it will keep us motivated, and just help us mentally believe that we can do it, that we can beat any team out there."

But to begin with, her team seemed too determined to the point of nervousness. North Carolina began with an explosive stretch of offense fueled by Florida's unsettled and error-ridden defense, scoring three goals in the first eight minutes of play.

UNC's Abbey Friend scored 2:30 into the game on a free-position shot earned with aggressive play around the cage.

Less than two minutes later, UNC's Emily Garrity intercepted an attempted clear by Florida and made a long leading pass to Friend, who was able to convert the fast-break goal.

Senior attack Kara Cannizzaro connected with Taylor George shortly after. North Carolina's defense forced a turnover on defense, and made a series of long passes until George found herself nearly alone on top of the cage with little else to do but poke the ball in.

But there would be no more easy goals, and UNC would regret not converting its open shots.

"We just threw the ball at the cage and hoped it would go in," UNC coach Jenny Levy said. "And the majority of shots were low. "But credit the defense. They did a great job today."

Senior Kitty Cullen managed to put Florida on the board with a free-position goal around the 20-minute mark in the first half.

Though the Gators entered halftime trailing 3-1, there was a sense that the game had settled down. Both teams fell into a more deliberate, patient game featuring extended periods of possession.

The shots that were eventually taken were open ones, but goalkeepers Lauren Maksym for UNC and Florida's Mikey Meagher — again, a senior — stood fast. Each finished the half with six saves. Maksym finished with 10 and Meagher nine.

Cannizzaro made a dazzling move inside the arc to set up a one-on-one meeting with Meagher. She faked right, and dropped the ball into the bottom left corner. Meagher was there.

"Without Mikey in goal, we're not winning that contest," Florida coach Amanda O'Leary said. "But that's what we expect out of her. Every single time we ask her to come up big, she does, and she certainly came up big today making point-blank saves."

Confident in their back line, the Gators scored four second-half goals while remaining composed on defense under the pressure of an increasingly urgent UNC attack.

Florida's defense held UNC scoreless, a notable accomplishment against a team that averaged more than 13 goals per game last season.

"Both programs have really good defenses," Levy said. "To hold a team to five goals is great. If someone told me we'd held [Florida] to five goals, I probably would have said 'Oh, we won the game!' But scoring three [goals] is definitely not a highlight, and something we need to work on."

Florida, though, can move on knowing that it's a program coming of age, led for the first time by a group of seniors with a real sense of its history. But more importantly, those seniors have a sense of Florida's future.

"It's a close-knit team with high expectations for themselves, but they also have high expectations for the younger players," O'Leary said. "You can have confidence putting them the field as a freshman because the seniors have brought them along and taken them under their wing. They have each other's backs."

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