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Saturday, April 20, 2024

Amanda O’Leary stood on the field and looked around while goose bumps covered her body at the sound of the national anthem. She saw the stadium that would be at capacity less than four minutes after faceoff, she saw the faces of supporters, and she saw her dream come true.

O’Leary, UF’s lacrosse coach, dreamt of building a top-notch women’s program in Gainesville. She worked with UF athletics director Jeremy Foley to get funding, to create a facility and to gather staff and players who were committed to her dream. When all that was done, O’Leary stood in awe of the turnout at UF’s inaugural game against Jacksonville.

The field was surrounded by 2,114 people who flocked to Donald R. Dizney Stadium on Feb. 20 to see a team, unproven at the Division-I level, win its inaugural game 16-6 over the Dolphins.

Since that record-setting game, UF has put together a solid season for a first-year program as it garnered eight more victories and dropped six matches. Its résumé includes wins over then-No.14 Penn State and No.17 New Hampshire, and the Gators even jumped into the top-20 rankings for a week.

The team put up statistics that some more experienced teams would trade for, and it shocked some doubters when its core of 24 freshmen, two sophomores, one junior and two seniors matured in a matter of months, dealt with adversity and played like they had years of D-I experience under their belts.

“I think the players have learned a great deal, and that’s been our philosophy,” O’Leary said. “If we can go out each day and get better, then we can really count the season as a success, and I think we had some real successes this season.”

Young guns

With only five non-freshmen on the roster, who combined for six starts this season — all by Rachael Zimmerman before her season-ending injury — the Gators were going to need big seasons from the freshmen.

The athletes O’Leary gathered knew the high expectations that were set at Florida when they chose to come to Gainesville to take on the challenge.

So far, it’s worked out just fine.

The freshmen flourished this season, padding the stat sheets and some even gaining national recognition along the way.

At the helm of the march for freshmen dominance was Ashley Bruns.

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Bruns, a 5-foot-2-inch attacker from Ellicott City, Md., put the first marks in UF lacrosse’s history book with four scores and four assists in the first game, and has continued adding to it.

Bruns leads the Gators with 44 goals and 30 assists. She is currently third in the nation with 74 overall points and she was named American Lacrosse Conference Rookie of the Week three times this season.

The freshman also was dubbed WomensLacrosse.com and WomensLax.com Rookie of the Week on March 23.

“It feels great,” Bruns said, “but it’s not the first thing on my mind every day.”

In addition to Bruns, defender Sam Farrell was named the American Lacrosse Conference Defensive Player of the Week on April 6, and Brittany Dashiell shared Rookie of the Week honors on March 9.

“We did an amazing job,” Bruns said. “We showed that we can play with the top players — the seniors, the juniors, the sophomores who have been doing this for years. We surprised a lot of people, just knowing that Florida is not a team you just walk over.”

Injuries and Inconsistencies

Freshman attacker Amanda Wedekind, defender Rachel Smith and midfielder Hayley Katzenberger began the season on the sideline after suffering season-ending injuries last summer and fall.

The losses forced UF to constantly adjust its lineup as it sought to find the right mix of players each game.

When O’Leary thought she had found the right system, a midfield substitution for offense and defense, more injuries struck.

Zimmerman went down with a torn ACL during a pre-game warm-up before the game against New Hampshire, and Julie Schindel suffered a wrist injury in practice the day before the Oregon game.

O’Leary said she had to ask the team to make changes with little preparation before the games.

“It was really hard, but this team made the adjustments,” she said. “They were accountable for those game-day adjustments and they worked through them, so I give them all the credit in the world.”

In addition to the injuries the Gators battled, there were bouts of inconsistency throughout the season. They won the first two games, but lost the third. They then regrouped and got another win, but that was followed by two losses. They won three more then lost one. The trend continued as they had another three-game winning streak, which was followed by two losses.

The mental turmoil that came with doing everything right and being on top one week, but then making mistakes and being down the next week forced the athletes to draw inspiration from each other.

 “It was really important to look at each other for a pump-up speech or look at each other for smiles when we won,” goalie Cara Canington said. “The team and the coaches (stuck) together and (took) those emotions — whether happy or bad — together.”

O’Leary recalled her husband’s frighteningly accurate preseason prediction about the ups and downs she would face this season.

“When we went into the year, my husband was telling me, ‘You’re going to catch a team that you probably shouldn’t beat, and then you are going to get beat by a team you shouldn’t get beat by,’” O’Leary said.

UF beat No. 14 Penn State but then fell to an unranked Colgate the following weekend.

Chemistry

The common bonds the players share, being young and being a part of the inaugural team, have translated to more than just success on the field.

Florida’s staff decided to take a more compassionate approach to coaching, as opposed to the heavy-handed method usually associated with training a team of adults.

If you walk into the facility before practice, the atmosphere is more of a family coming together for a reunion. Players and coaches arrive, greet each other and talk about their day  — from how they feel to how their classes went.

“They just work so hard (that) you probably don’t even need to yell at them half the time because they are so hard on themselves,” O’Leary said. “We spend so much time together that you want to make it a family environment, because most of them live so far away, and their parents are flights away.

You want them to feel that they are part of a family and that people care about them.”  

The players have jelled and often attribute their success to their close relationships. Canington said playing with her teammates is like having 20-plus best friends, and that they manage to keep their relationships drama-free.

The memories she said she’ll take from the season are those of camaraderie. Bus rides were private parties, with music and dancing, and being greeted in airports with the “Gator Chomp” highlighted her year.

Bright future

Florida’s young squad proved it has the talent to play at the Division-I level, and the players are looking forward to what UF will be able to do next season, after having gotten acquainted with each other this year.

“This year is all about finding out what works for different players, and how to communicate and work well with different players,” Bruns said. “Next year, we’re going to know, and we’re going to come out with fire.”

Florida has already had five midfield signees for its second season – Anna DeGiovanni from Flemington, N.J., Kelsey Dlugos from Commack, N.Y., Elizabeth Dunwoody from Oak Hill, Va., Krista Grabher from Fort Pierce and Courtney Hoyes from Silver Spring, Md.

The future, for UF, has countless possibilities, but before it focuses on avenging losses and improving for next season, the team will prepare for its final regular-season game and toughest test against the five-time defending champions Northwestern on May 2.

“If we win, it’s going to make the season a hundred times better, because they have won the national championship five years,” midfielder Jamie Reeg said. “If we lose, I don’t think it’s going to change anything as long as we play really well together.”

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