October 24, 2013

30 in 30: Sun Rising on Tampa's Inaugural Season

by Mark Macyk | LaxMagazine.com

Heading into its inaugural season, 26 of Tampa's 34 players are new to college.
© Tampa/Todd Montgomery

The coaching staff at Tampa’s brand-new women's lacrosse program learned a truism this fall: Freshmen say the darndest things.

“We kind of joke that we live in one of those AT&T commercials,” said Spartans head coach Kelly Gallagher. “You’re like, ‘What? Where did that come from?’ When you have so many freshmen you remember how fun it is to be 18 or 19 and all the things you think about the world.”

Heading into its inaugural season, 26 of Tampa’s 34 players are new to college. Only one Spartan, sophomore Jackie Martin, who put up 17 points in 15 games for Division III Randolph-Macon last spring, has collegiate playing experience.

So when Tampa headed up to Coastal Carolina to take on Kennesaw State, Campbell and the host Chanticleers last week, it was kind of a big deal. Not so much because of what happened on the field, they don’t keep score and it was a brand-new Division II program facing established D-I teams, but because of all that surrounded the trip.

“They get so excited about everything,” Gallagher said. “‘We get to ride on a bus for nine hours?’ ‘We get to stay in a hotel room?’ Then it’s ‘Wait, we have to get back on the bus and go home?’”

It was an important lesson. Despite traveling 1,100 miles in one weekend, yes, the Spartans would still have to go to class on Monday. There will be similar learning experiences all season. When most of your team is adjusting to college both on and off the field, even the smallest success can be a milestone.

“We celebrate the little victories,” Gallagher said. “I think at first the girls thought I was crazy. Now they love it when they miss the goal but I’m so excited that they did something else the right way.”

The University of Tampa is a school with an established athletic tradition. The baseball team won the NCAA championship last spring. The volleyball team is currently ranked No. 2 in Division II. The men’s lacrosse team, itself just four-years old, has won 11 games in back-to-back seasons. The women’s lacrosse team doesn’t plan to be the odd team out.

“They say, ‘Coach, we don’t want to be that team that loses,’” Gallagher said. “‘We want to be good too. We want everyone to come to our games.’”

Losing is part of being a new team, but this isn't one of those programs where the lacrosse coach was cobbling together a team, sneaking into volleyball practice and putting a stick into a blocker's hands. 

After being hired last September, Gallagher asked her athletic director how many players he wanted her to recruit. He asked how many she needed. “Twelve,” was her response. “So get 12.” The first team tripled that number.

Turns out Tampa is a place Northeasterners want to go to school. That's one of the reasons they started a lacrosse team. While the Spartans field players from 10 different states, including six from Florida, nearly half hail from New York or New Jersey, with 13 coming from the Empire State alone.

Gallagher, who had been an assistant coach at Limestone and Detroit-Mercy, began recruiting even before moving to Florida. Her first month was spent traveling up and down the coast, building her first class. Once that was done she settled in Florida began outreach to local high schools, then in the spring she ran practices for interested players already on campus. In July, Gallagher brought in former Hofstra defender and St. Francis assistant, Kerrin Fraser to round out the staff.

Then the players arrived. 

“I walked into a room and there were 30 freshmen staring at me,” Gallagher said. “It was an interesting transition from being here for 10 months by myself.”

They started individual workouts, which in Tampa in August means running in 90-degree weather.

“I said, ‘You came to Florida because of that heat,” Gallagher said. “I remind them every day, ‘Sunshine and palm trees, ladies. That's why you came here.’” 

It's easier to see now. As the Northern teams head indoors, the Spartans will still be playing fall ball for another two weeks. Then, while most teams are shoveling the field, they’ll open the real season on Feb. 8 against Rollins.

“I love that we’re gonna be playing fall ball on Nov. 7 and we’re still going to be in T-shirts and shorts,” Gallagher said. “It’s a far cry from where I was three years ago in Detroit.”

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