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Friday, June 02, 2023

Asking members of the Gators lacrosse team why they chose to come to Florida is like trying to make small talk with a stranger.

The conversation always starts with the weather.

One of the biggest advantages for No. 17 Florida, a growing, second-year program, is the fact it is one of only a handful of teams in Division-I lacrosse that doesn’t have to deal with snowfall every year.

Recruits are sold on the fact they can practice and play outside during the winter when their families and friends up north are still shoveling driveways.

Caroline Cochran wasn’t initially recruited by Florida out of her high school in Maryland. The No. 15 recruit in the nation, according to Inside Lacrosse, was a senior in 2008, and the Gators didn’t start offering scholarships until a year later.

So, the two-time high school All-American ended up at Virginia, where she played attacker sparingly in five games as a freshman.

“I love everyone at UVA, I’m still really close with all of my friends, but it wasn’t the right place for me,” she said.

Seeking a fresh start at a new school, she began looking for a way out. Cochran learned UF coach Amanda O’Leary was heavily recruiting in her home state. The coach would eventually get 17 recruits to commit out of Maryland.

Some of them were Cochran’s friends. After taking their visits to Gainesville, they started giving the sophomore positive feedback on what they saw during their trip.

“My friends from home were coming here, and they were like, ‘You should go look at it. It’s really awesome.’ So, I came down here and fell in love with it right away,” Cochran said. “It was actually my first place I looked, and I committed a couple days later.”

Florida’s resources have given the team an enviable advantage in attracting recruits, even in its first two years as a program.

No other school in the country that carries men’s or women’s lacrosse has a complex and stadium devoted solely to the sport, let alone one that cost $15 million to build like Donald R. Dizney Stadium.

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“Just the whole idea of how important the student-athlete is and how well they are taken care of here, I think, resonated through the freshman that were already here and the college lacrosse world,” O’Leary said.

The Weather’s Fine

Cochran said most people are sold on UF’s combination of the new facilities, expensive Nike equipment and, most importantly, the appealing climate.

During the winter months, the Gators were one of the few teams in the U.S. able to practice outside. O’Leary said she talked to coaches from schools in the Northeast who were still stuck indoors due to snow storms.

Almost a third of all Division-I teams (30 out of 91) that play women’s lacrosse reside in either New York or Pennsylvania. So far this winter, both states have been covered with a combined 95 inches of snow in their biggest cities, New York City and Pittsburgh.

Most snowbound teams must head south to play exhibition tournaments just to get back into playing form each season. Meanwhile, the comparatively mild winters in Florida allow the Gators to start practicing earlier and closer to home.

Cochran said several of her former teammates from Virginia called during a tournament in Orlando last week exclaiming how jealous they were that she was having 70-degree days this time of year.

Redshirt freshman Erin Graziano was at Syracuse last year before an injury derailed her season, leading her to transfer to Gainesville. The New Jersey native also listed the weather as the main reason she chose UF over other schools.

“Initially it was the location,” she said. “I mean, who doesn’t want to play lacrosse in Florida?”

Graziano admitted that leaving Syracuse for Gainesville was a big risk. Usually transfers rarely commit to an inexperienced and untested program like Florida when their last collegiate stop ended poorly. Instead, they choose to go to an established, safer one — usually closer to home.

After O’Leary reeled in the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class last year, Graziano said the good press about the Gators sounded too appealing to ignore, and she let the coach know she would like to head down.

The Gators have lured in four transfers the past two years, including Cochran and Graziano. Entering its second full season of NCAA play, UF has leaned on them to provide stability when inexperience catches up with the team in close games.

“It was just in the back of my head that, ‘OK we might be able to attract some of these kids that are already enrolled at other institutions that may not be happy,’” O’Leary said.

While it took Graziano, a midfielder, some time to mesh with her new teammates in the locker room and on the field, she said she never felt out of place. In her opinion, the biggest difference between Syracuse and Florida is how the athletes are treated by their peers and fans.

“Florida as an overall atmosphere is very welcoming,” she said. “Everyone has pride for their school and stuff, which is a huge change.

“I’m still friends with everyone at Syracuse, but the whole atmosphere here is just great.”

Come On Down

Graziano isn’t alone. Florida has the luxury of being a destination other schools in nonconference play want to visit because of the Gators’ facilities and location.

When teams traveled to Gainesville last season, O’Leary said some refused to use the visiting locker room in the Florida Lacrosse Facility not because it was insufficient, but because it was too nice compared to what they had back home. Instead, they decided to change at a nearby hotel.

Florida’s scheduling for this season slates them for 11 home games and only five on the road.

From Feb. 20 to March 26, nine games will be in straight succession at home against nonconference opponents and co-American Lacrosse Conference member Ohio State.

O’Leary expects the monthlong homestand to be a huge boost for a second-year team that finished 3-6 on the road last season. No. 2 Northwestern will also have to come to Gainesville this year after the Gators lost to the national runner-up by 14 goals in last season’s finale.

“We got all of the jitters out last year,” Cochran said. “We’re going to be a lot more prepared this time.”

As Florida closed its inaugural season, the team ran into a brick wall of tough competition. UF gave up 62 goals in its last five games leading to four losses, including three against conference opponents.

In the fall, the Gators continued to struggle through their October exhibition schedule. Though stats and scores weren’t kept, Graziano recalls getting “kind of killed” by Duke at a tournament in Durham, N.C.

But last weekend, in another preseason tune-up in North Carolina against the Blue Devils, the Gators performed at a much higher level, dropping a close game 8-6.

“You can just see that everyone’s growing up and what’s to come for this season,” she said.

Florida has built a strong foundation for a run at a postseason berth with the way its recruited and scheduled the past two years.

The team’s 2010 campaign came up short due to inexperience in the locker room and a lack of leadership on the field, which led to a 1-4 mark in conference play.

Without those wins against ALC opponents, the Gators can not compete for a national championship.

They will be at home in May, enjoying the Florida weather.

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