After five successful years of playing in the American Lacrosse Conference, Florida lacrosse is taking its talents to the Big East to join one of the most competitive conferences in women’s college lacrosse.
The Gators, ranked No. 3 heading into the regular season, are excited to begin their 2015 campaign after a long offseason.
The new affiliate member of the Big East has already been picked to win the conference in the preseason coaches poll.
Florida received seven of eight first-place votes. The only vote it didn’t receive was its own – coaches can’t vote for their own team.
The Big East is made up of eight total teams, including No. 17 Georgetown, Cincinnati and Connecticut.
After winning four regular-season titles as a member of the ALC in the last five years, the Gators are looking forward to the challenge of joining a new conference.
"This is a great conference," coach Amanda O’Leary said. "Georgetown is a top-ranked team across the board, Vanderbilt, that’s another team we’ve played every single year, so this is a wonderful conference for us to be a part of."
Aside from its conference games, Florida faces a daunting 2015 schedule, with six of its opponents being ranked in the Inside Lacrosse Preseason Poll top 20, including Maryland, North Carolina and Syracuse, ranked No. 1, 2 and 4 respectively.
And the Gators aren’t wasting any time getting adjusted to the new season — they host the Tar Heels on Saturday in Florida’s season opener.
"It’s great for us, it will certainly show where we are," O’Leary said. "Last year, we had a tough game against (UNC), so hopefully this year we’ll be a little more prepared."
The "tough game" O’Leary referred to was a 20-8 loss to UNC in Florida’s season opener last year, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, one of only two regular season losses for the Gators. Saturday’s game will be the Tar Heels’ first ever trip to Gainesville.
With such a challenging season ahead of it, Florida will rely on its deep, talented roster to lead the way. That all starts with senior midfielder Shannon Gilroy, who led the nation with 86 goals last year and led the Gators in points, goals, assists, draw controls, free-position goals and caused turnovers.
She is one of Florida’s leader on offense and the Gators will need her at full strength in each and every game.
That’s not to say that Gilroy runs the show for Florida, however. The Gators will also look to players such as senior midfielder Nora Barry, sophomore defender Caroline Fitzgerald and sophomore attacker Sammi Burgess for strong contributions this season.
All four have already been named to the preseason Big East First Team.
"We’re a young team still, but I think, more than ever, we are deep with depth," O’Leary said. "Just something very different for us, to have the ability to play a lot of different players."
With 10 returning starters from a team that made it to the NCAA quarterfinals last season, Florida can’t wait to get its season underway on Saturday in what will be a great match against North Carolina.
"I think there’s a sense of anticipation and excitement to get this season started," O’Leary said. "I think (the players) are really excited to have somebody to push and hit other than themselves and each other."
Follow Alex Maminakis on Twitter @alexmaminakis
Shannon Gilroy breaks away from a group of defenders during Florida’s 21-5 win against Jacksonville on Feb. 12 at Donald R. Dizney Stadium.