When she paces the sidelines Saturday against No. 3 North Carolina, coach Amanda O’Leary will do so knowing her team won’t react the same way it did last year.
Something goes wrong: a goal, a turnover or a penalty. Her players’ heads begin to drop, their sticks start to fall to their side, and all O’Leary can think is, “Oh, crap. You know this is not going to be good.”
Florida played one of its best halves of lacrosse last year on the road against then-No. 4 UNC. Down only two goals at the half, the upstart Gators looked like they had a chance to grab a marquee win against a ranked opponent for the first time in school history.
Then, the Tar Heels scored. And then scored again.
Soon, a 6-4 game ballooned into an 18-5 blowout, leaving the Gators to wonder how long it would take them to gain enough composure to compete in big games.
O’Leary believes this team is different from the one that went 10-8 a year ago and had a losing record on the road. The Gators played last weekend in an exhibition tournament in Chapel Hill, N.C., and though they didn’t get an early shot at the Tar Heels, the coach said she saw something new in her players.
“It didn’t snowball to the effect of last year where once we gave up one goal, we gave up five,” O’Leary said. “There’s a whole lot of things that are involved in the maturation process of our team. One of the biggest things that I saw coming out of the weekend is that they have confidence in each other.”
With only one upperclassman on the roster, junior transfer Caroline Cochran, the Gators don’t have traditional leadership roles from older players. The team’s core is made up of 16 sophomores who all saw action last season.
In the buildup to this season sophomore midfielder Brittany Dashiell said the Gators have become a leadership-by-committee group that has used last year’s shortcomings as motivation.
“We’re just really excited to get revenge on them, especially after losing last year,” Dashiell said. “And I think this year we have a lot more experience and are preparing differently.”
During a film session Thursday to prepare for the Tar Heels, the Gators reviewed some of the problems they had early last season.
Last year’s starting goal keeper for Florida, sophomore Cara Canington, noticed a marketable change in the team’s play from a highly frenetic, attacking style to a more matured, balanced offensive approach.
By playing within themselves this season, the Gators should be able to cut down on the staple of every young team: turnovers.
O’Leary said they crippled the team last season in big games — the Gators had 10 more than the Tar Heels when they last met. But during last weekend’s preseason games, O’Leary said she saw fewer mistakes and didn’t notice a single penalty.
“Clearly we’re better in certain aspects in our game, and that certainly being the turnovers,” she said. “We had far fewer than we had in the past and I also think there’s a different attitude out there which I think is unique in that I didn’t see it last year.”
Despite the positive outlook from coaches and players, the Gators are picked to place fourth in the American Lacrosse Conference behind national runner up No. 2 Northwestern, No.11 Vanderbilt and a No. 15 Penn State team that Florida beat 13-11 last April.
A win on the road against the Tar Heels, who are coming off the best run in school history after going 33-8 over the past two years, would be the first step toward respect and a bid to the national tournament for the Gators.