February 25, 2016
Redshirt senior Nicole Graziano is the only remaining player from Florida's 2012 final four team who knows what is required to go deep into the NCAA tournament. (Andy Mead)
Redshirt senior Nicole Graziano is the only remaining player from Florida's 2012 final four team who knows what is required to go deep into the NCAA tournament. (Andy Mead)

Graziano, Florida Affirm Real Championship Aspirations 

by Alex Maminakis | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Her teammates call her the grandma of the team.

Nicole Graziano is Florida's longest tenured player on the Gators' roster. A redshirt senior, Graziano has been a Gator since 2012 – the same class as Shannon Gilroy and Nora Barry, who have since departed from Gainesville.

As a freshman, Graziano was a part of Florida's final four run in just the program's third year of existence. One of only two players off the bench, she tallied one ground ball and one caused turnover in Florida's 14-13 overtime loss to Syracuse.

Now, as the team's most experienced player, she has openly embraced her leadership role on the team.

"It's good knowing that I've been [to the final four] in the past," Graziano said. "Whenever [my teammates] have issues with school or lacrosse or being homesick, they know that they can turn to me. ... Having been through all those issues in the past, I think I can definitely help them out a lot and give them advice."

Since Graziano's freshman year, when she recorded 36 points, the Gators have appeared in the NCAA Tournament every year and have built a program from the ground up. They advanced to the quarterfinals in 2013 and 2014, and the second round last season, falling to NCAA runner-up North Carolina 11-6. Expectations of competing for a national championship are now the norm.

However, after Gilroy and Barry were the only two starters to graduate from Florida in 2015 – the duo combined for nearly 30 percent of the team's offensive production – those expectations may have dipped among national perception. The Gators entered the preseason ranked No. 10 in the Nike/Lacrosse Magazine Top 20.

Surely, Florida's offense couldn't be as strong without Gilroy, who had a team-high 98 points last year – not right away at least.

Enter Sydney Pirreca, Lindsey Ronbeck and an abundance of talented freshmen.

"I don't really think we paid attention to 'Oh, we're losing two big stars,'" Graziano said. "More so, paying attention to incorporating the underclassmen into our offense, into our defense."

After upsetting then-No. 2 North Carolina last Saturday with a 16-15 win in Chapel Hill, Florida soared to No. 3 in the rankings and advanced to 3-0 on the young season, making its presence felt in the national landscape. Sydney Pirreca, the No. 1 freshman recruit in the nation, scored a game-high five goals for the Gators in the upset, followed by Graziano's four points. Sydney Pirreca is currently third on the team in goals scored behind junior Tewaaraton Award candidate Mollie Stevens and sophomore Shayna Pirreca, Sydney's older sister.

"It's definitely huge, especially so early into the season," Sydney Pirreca said on defeating the Tar Heels, who dropped to No. 4 in the Nike/LM Top 20 with the loss. "We're still developing. We're still changing positions around. Everyone's still feeling out, for the freshmen at least, the college game. ... UNC's a great team and they gave us a really hard game, but I think with our preparation and our heart and hard work, we came out on top."

Sydney Pirreca and Ronbeck, the latter being the No. 2 freshman recruit in the nation, have made an immediate impact for the Gators, quickly filling the void left behind by the departure of a historic senior class.

"We're starting to see some of those freshmen really mature and they certainly have earned those minutes," Florida coach Amanda O'Leary said. "It's a great freshman class, and it's well beyond just the ones that are on the field."

The strong freshman class only adds to a team already rich in firepower. Players like Stevens, Graziano, Shayna Pirreca, Sammi Burgess, Taylor Bresnahan and Caroline Fitzgerald, to name a few, have all already proven their value on the field. The freshmen have given the offense an extra boost, something that could elevate the Gators to a much higher platform.

"We're 3-0 under our belt right now, and as much as records don't matter, I think it just shows how much talent we really do have," Sydney Pirreca said. "I think we could go really far."

Now, in her fifth and final season as a Gator, Graziano said the team's goal of a national championship is not out of reach. She recognizes the program's growth since her freshman year – the year of the final four run – and she knows the younger players around her all want a taste of what it's like to make it that far into the postseason – and possibly beyond.

"That is definitely our goal," said Graziano. "To win a national championship. That's what you play for, to ultimately put that trophy above your head at the end of the year. I don't want to get too ahead of ourselves yet, but I definitely think that this team is very special."

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