Florida Gators' women's lacrosse on top of NCAA after just three years
Sam Farrell, Emily Dohony and many of their teammates were promised big things before they signed with Florida.
They were told an empty field would become one of the plushest lacrosse facilities in the country. They were told a program with no lacrosse history would compete for conference championships and NCAA titles - and soon. They were told they would be trailblazers and trendsetters.
They believed it all.
Now, they have witnessed it all.
In just their third season with a women's lacrosse program, the Gators swept the American Lacrosse Conference and earned the top seed in the NCAA tournament. Florida (17-2) hosts Albany (12-5) in the first round of the tournament Saturday. It's the latest step in a stellar run for a start-up program.
"We've made a statement, especially this year," coach Amanda O'Leary said. "With our No. 1 ranking, I think we've put ourselves on the map so to say. ... We've attained the successes that we've wanted to attain, but have we gotten there quickly? Yeah, we have."
The Gators advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament last year before losing to Duke, a loss that motivated players to do more to get to the next level.
"We're definitely a better team this year," said Dohony, a junior defender. "We had leadership last year, but maybe not as much, which comes with experience. I think this year we're really ready to go to the Final Four and succeed."
Building the program to this point was no fluke.
Athletic director Jeremy Foley hired O'Leary more than two years before Florida played its first game and gave his new coach the budget to recruit the best players from all around the country.
O'Leary, a college standout at Temple who was inducted into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 2005, basically set up shop in talent-rich Maryland and landed the top recruiting class in the nation. They signed with upstart Florida for a variety of reasons, some because of the weather, others because of the university's academic standing.
They all trusted O'Leary.
"We didn't really know anything," said Farrell, a junior defender from Millersville, Md. "They all told us to trust them and we will be one of the top teams quickly."
The Gators weren't just blowing smoke, either. They had precedent.
Long before Florida fielded soccer and softball teams, Foley had coaches in place and was paying them to piece those programs together. The result? The soccer team won its first Southeastern Conference title in its second year (1996) and upset powerhouse North Carolina two years later to claim the national title. The softball team won the SEC in its second season (1998) and has advanced to the Women's College World Series each of the last four years.
Lacrosse simply followed Foley's proven path, which relies on finding the right coaches and giving them the same kind of support that revenue-generating sports like football and basketball get. Florida's lacrosse team now has arguably the best facility in the nation, complete with a visiting locker that rivals most home-team digs.
"They believed in our vision and they took a leap of faith," Foley said. "To come from nowhere to where they are today is rewarding, but I don't think any of us are saying it's especially rewarding because it happened in three years."
It could just be getting started, too.
The Gators have just one senior, so they expect to be contenders again next year and maybe for a while to come.
"In a couple of years, we're going to look back and know that we helped start this program and bring it to where it is," Farrell said.