Haley Hicklen

2017 Big East Goalkeeper of the Year Haley Hicklen and six preseason All-Big East team members return to coach Amanda O'Leary's team this season. 

Alligator File Photo

The Florida lacrosse team has not reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament since 2015.

Despite heartbreaking losses in the first round of the tournament the past two years, the Gators aren’t worried about suffering the same fate in 2018.

The defending Big East champions are the unanimous pick to win the conference title once again and are the preseason No. 5 team in the country.

And for good reason.

Ninth-year coach Amanda O’Leary’s squad returns three of its five leading scorers from a year ago, the 2017 Big East Goalkeeper of the Year in Haley Hicklen and six preseason All-Big East team members.

Coming off a season in which Florida finished 17-3, including a 9-0 mark in conference play, it’s easy to see why the team is confident.

While the Gators return bona fide offensive stars in attackers Lindsey Ronbeck and Shayna Pirreca, as well as Shayna’s sister, midfielder Sydney Pirreca, they still have a lot of production to replace.

Florida’s points leaders, Sammi Burgess and Mollie Stevens, have graduated. Due to this, several newcomers will need to step up quickly.

O’Leary said she expects to play six freshmen in Florida’s season-opening game against No. 16 Colorado on Sunday at Donald R. Dizney Stadium. Senior defender Aniya Flanagan believes the young players are ready for the challenge.

“At practice, we always go 100 percent,” Flanagan said. “We don’t go light on them because they’re freshmen.”

Two of those freshmen, attackers Kassidy Bresnahan and Grace Haus, could start on the offensive end. Freshman midfielder Shannon Kavanagh is expected to take the first draw of the game and see extensive playing time Sunday.

The Gators know Colorado won’t be an easy game. O’Leary summed up Florida’s opponent in one word: explosive.

Explosive might be an understatement.

The Buffaloes, tabbed to finish second in the Pac-12, return their leading scorer from last year in Darby Kiernan. In 2017, Colorado had the 17th-best scoring offense in the country, as well as the third-best scoring defense. Despite having only four seasons under its belt as a Division I program, CU has quickly established itself as one of the best teams in the country.

The Buffaloes’ season begins tonight, as they take on Michigan in Jacksonville.

Considering the fact that the Gators’ schedule includes six games against teams ranked in the preseason top-25 — highlighted by a bout with No. 1 Maryland on Feb. 17 — Florida could easily look ahead to tougher opponents and the postseason. But Shayna Pirreca does not think that will happen.

She said in the past, the team’s goal has been to win a national title. While this ambition remains, after two consecutive disappointing finishes in the NCAA Tournament, she said the team has simplified its approach.

“We have to go 1-0, 17 times,” she said.

Follow Tyler Nettuno on Twitter @TylerNettuno and contact him at [email protected].

Tyler Nettuno is a sports writer for the Alligator and covers the University of Florida lacrosse team. He has previously covered UF men's and women's golf. He has worked at the paper since Fall 2017.