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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Florida’s defense is starting to find its identity, and a freshman is leading the charge.

In the first six games this season, UF (9-5) gave up an average of 11.5 goals per contest and went 3-3 during that stretch. Since then, it has won six of its last eight games, averaging 7.1 goals against.

A defining moment came in the Gators’ 13-11 win over No. 14 Penn State on April 3. The teams were tied at six at halftime, but UF’s defense contained the Nittany Lions, held them to zero of four free-position shots in the second half and kept PSU’s offensive leader, Molly Fernandez, scoreless.

Goalkeeper Cara Canington has been at the heart of the defensive turnaround. The freshman said her team is “coming into a nice groove” because the players are getting to know each other’s tendencies.

She said the squad played like the group of strangers it was at the beginning of the season, but now the players’ off-field, sister-like closeness is beginning to show in their play.

Canington is one of 24 freshmen on UF’s inaugural team, but she had no difficulty transitioning to Division-I lacrosse and taking on the pressure that comes with being the last line of defense for her squad.

“It’s kind of nice, because I’m the quarterback,” Canington said. “I can see everything unfold. I can see the open player. It’s tough for a lot of defenders, because they have to worry about their girl but also be aware to slide and help. So, it’s fun to be the communicator.”

Canington said because the average player would not voluntarily want to get in front of the ball, many goalkeepers were born with the inclination to fill the position.

She falls into that group.

When the freshman first took up lacrosse in the fourth grade, she played in the field as a defender. But she couldn’t catch or cradle the ball, so she traded up for a bigger stick, a helmet and padding like her brother wore for football.

She moved to goalie in the fifth grade, and her natural instinct to get in people’s faces and stop the ball allowed her to be successful at the position, but first she had to face the hazards of being a target in goal.

In her first game, Canington said she was nailed in the head by a ball, and her father was worried because he thought she would quit playing the position after the incident.

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“He got really concerned about it, but I just turned around and gave him a big thumbs up,” she said. “That’s when he knew that it was going to work out, that I wasn’t afraid of the ball and that everything was going to be good in the goal.”

Since then, she has been hit many times — even on occasion by her teammates — but Canington considers it an unintentional part of the game. Besides, a shot off the facemask is still better than allowing a goal.

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