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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Come spring, there will be a new sport on campus to capture your attention.

UF students, we present…women's lacrosse.

Yep, that's right, while the sport was formally announced years ago, we are now finally 207 days from the Gators' season opener - Feb. 20 against Jacksonville.

This, of course, begs the burning question: How will women's lacrosse be received in Gainesville?

The groundwork for the sport (really, it's like building a completely new program, since it needed a new stadium and there was no men's equivalent already on campus) has been laid since June 14, 2006, when Athletics Director Jeremy Foley announced the newest varsity sport was coming to Gainesville.

The sport is certainly gaining popularity nationwide. The NCAA has sanctioned a collegiate champion in women's lacrosse since 1982, and the sport divided itself into the traditional Division I, II and III subdivisions in 2001.

Success has had a decidedly northeast flavor, however. All four Division I champions (Maryland, Princeton twice, Virginia and Northwestern five times) have come from that region of the country, where lacrosse is similar in popularity to sports like baseball, basketball and football in the South.

There will be no easy transition for the Gators, as they are joining the American Lacrosse Conference, a seven-team league containing fellow Southeastern Conference schools Vanderbilt and South Carolina as well as five-time reigning national champ Northwestern.

When UF takes the field for its season opener in February &ndash there will likely be some exhibition matches in the fall, still to be announced &ndash it will be 13 years since a Gators squad's inaugural season (there was softball's debut in 1997 and before that soccer in 1995).

And those two teams are evidence that if you win early, the fans will come. The soccer team won a championship in its fourth season and the softball team earned an NCAA Tournament appearance in its second year.

With UF flourishing in so many non-revenue sports, on-the-field success usually determines what program will get the added carry-over support from the traditional Gators football and men's basketball fan.

On that end, surface knowledge shows UF has done its homework.

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Foley, known for his ability to hire great up-and-coming coaches, tapped National Lacrosse Hall of Fame member Amanda O'Leary to head the UF women's lacrosse program. O'Leary came to UF after coaching at Yale for 14 years. When she left, she ranked fifth among active coaches in career winning percentage (.714), and Foley brought her to Gainesville in June 2007 in order to give her plenty of time to lay the groundwork.

O'Leary's first recruiting class, 24 women strong, will make its way onto campus in the fall and includes seven players named to the US Lacrosse High School All-America Team as juniors.

So the Gators have a beautiful stadium, a well-established coach and a young but talented crop of players.

Now, the question remains: How long until the program finds success, and more importantly, how many people will care?

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