No. 4 Florida is moving on up.
After a string of home wins and two big wins on the road, the Gators (7-1, 1-0 American Lacrosse Conference) have climbed back to where it started in the preseason poll before its season-opening loss against No. 1 North Carolina.
But with a game against Winthrop (2-3) tonight and an even bigger matchup against No. 3 Syracuse (6-1) on Saturday, Florida lacrosse will have to fight to stay among the top-five teams.
Coach Amanda O’Leary is looking to assistant coach Michelle Tumolo, a Syracuse alum, to lead Florida through the week’s matchups.
“Syracuse is a huge challenge for us,” O’Leary said. “They are an exceptional lacrosse team. They are [No. 3] in the country and it’s a well-deserved [No. 3]. They have a fast-paced offense. Their defense is an older, more mature group. … Hopefully, Michelle will help us in preparation.”
With Florida’s solid defense and speedy offense, the team should cruise past unranked Winthrop, which has faltered in more games than it has won this season.
Though the defense has played tough in its last three games, senior defender Krista Grabher said that even with the defense’s massive improvement over its first seven games, it still needs a lot of work.
“The defense has a lot to work on,” Grabher said. “We prepare specifically for each and every team. So a lot of focus, the attack is always refining the same thing.”
Freshmen defenders Caroline Fitzgerald and Taylor Bresnahan and junior midfielder Shannon Gilroy have been big facilitators in leading Florida through most of its blowout wins and Florida’s nail-biting, 14-13 victory over No. 12 Loyola.
“[Bresnahan and Fitzgerald] have come in and been able to work with what we have going on and easily put themselves in the defense,” Grabher said.
Fitzgerald has been credited by teammates like Grabher and sophomore Sam Darcangelo for her strong defensive abilities. The freshman has caused seven turnovers this season and contributed 12 ground balls and two draw controls.
Darcangelo said starting freshmen like Fitzgerald and Bresnahan don’t have room for errors.
“They have to be good,” Darcangelo said.
“We lost a lot of seniors, and they have to make up for that — especially the starters.”
Bresnahan has one goal on two shots, five ground balls, five draw controls and three caused turnovers for the season.
These two freshmen, with the leadership of Grabher, have helped put together a whole new defense after losing most of its starters to graduation in 2013.
O’Leary has started Fitzgerald in every game this season and recognizes what a threat she can be to attackers.
“I’m really pleased she’s a freshman and we’re going have some more years with her,” O’Leary said.
“She came to us well-seasoned. … With each game, we give her more and more responsibility, and she’s lining up against teams’ best attackers. I don’t know if there is anymore recognition for her to earn than being put up against teams top-10.”
Follow Eden Otero on Twitter @edenotero_l
Shannon Gilroy fights for the ball during Florida’s 21-5 win against Jacksonville on Feb. 12 at Donald R. Dizney Stadium. Gilroy leads the Gators with 35 goals this season.